MADISON, Wis. — Confidence may be an unquantifiable characteristic, but Sam Dekker’s level of self-belief is almost always filled to the brim. Just watch the way he jogs down court after burying a 3-ponter, three fingers held high in the air for the crowd to see what he’s accomplished.
There is a fine line between confidence and cocky, of course, and Dekker has straddled it during his freshman season at Wisconsin as he adjusts to a new role with a new team. He is certainly a showman unlike few Badgers in recent memory. But Dekker also plays for a coach who won’t allow his leash to extend too far — at least not yet.
The more Dekker plays like he did Tuesday night, however, the more his restraints will be lifted as Wisconsin prepares for postseason play.
Dekker matched a career high with 19 points during No. 17 Wisconsin’s 77-46 pasting of Nebraska at the Kohl Center. He buried 5 of 6 shots from the field, including 4 of 5 3-point attempts in 22 minutes to help the Badgers pull away early.
Although his minutes have been limited as a bench player for the first time in his career, Dekker has adjusted well at Wisconsin (20-8, 11-4), particularly in the second half of the season. He has reached double figures in scoring in five straight games and said the biggest difference was eliminating doubt on when to attack off the dribble or pull up for shots.
“It helps a lot when these guys have a lot of faith in you,” Dekker said. “They don’t mind when I put a bad shot up once in a while. They know I have the skill and the talent to make that. I’m going to work hard for these guys. Just the confidence that my teammates put in me and that I have in myself, that’s pretty much the reason I’ve been playing better.”
Since Wisconsin’s first Big Ten game against Penn State on Jan. 3, Dekker has not shot worse than 40 percent from the field in any game. During that time, he has made 49 of 90 shots from the field (54.4 percent), including 24 of 51 3-pointers (47.0 percent).
It is enough to boost the 6-foot-7 Dekker into the conversation for the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year award, an honor that began in 2006. This season, he is averaging 9.5 points and 3.4 rebounds in 22.0 minutes per game. He is shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 44.8 percent on 3s — the fourth-best long-range mark in the conference.
“He’s a really good player,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “He’s very impressive. He’s got great length and size. He can drive it. He really shoots it.
“He’s one of those guys that when he shoots it, he kind of snaps the back of the net, the bottom of the net. He’s got the right size and the right arc on the ball. I think he’s got a very bright future ahead of him.”
Indiana guard Will Sheehey is likely Dekker’s biggest competitor for the sixth man honor. Sheehey is averaging 9.9 points and 3.6 rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game. He is shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 36.7 percent on 3s. The Hoosiers also are in line for a No. 1 seed and a Big Ten regular-season championship, which could put Sheehey over the top — although Indiana’s 77-73 loss at Minnesota on Tuesday brought Wisconsin to within one game of the top spot.
Dekker’s season certainly stacks up well to past sixth man winners in the conference. Last season, for example, Purdue guard D.J. Byrd averaged 8.5 points per game and shot 43.2 percent from 3-point range to win the honor. And when Wisconsin guard Jason Bohannon became the first Badgers player to earn the award in 2008, he averaged 8.2 points and 2.4 rebounds.
Yet the shooting statistics have never been a question with Dekker, last year’s high school player of the year in Wisconsin. As a senior at Sheboygan Area Lutheran, he averaged 32.5 points per game and shot 58.7 percent from the field. These days, his greatest area of growth this season has come defensively. In high school, he could take plays off defensively with no real repercussions.
Now, a lazy defensive possession will put Dekker on the bench, absorbing an earful from Badgers coach Bo Ryan. That is Ryan’s way, and it’s the only way he has ever coached.
Against Northwestern last week, Dekker misplayed his defender and was beaten for a 3-pointer. He was immediately pulled from the game.
“The first possession he’s out there against Northwestern, he goes under a screen and we’re pitching a shutout and it’s 9-3,” Ryan said. “Might have been the quickest substitution in the history of basketball. But it was just to tell him, ‘Look, this is what you have to do.’ Then when he got back in against Northwestern, he was fine.”
Ryan went on to say that Dekker was beaten backdoor later in the game — another example of the rollercoaster ride most freshmen endure in the Big Ten.
Still, Ryan has noted Dekker’s defensive improvement without lathering him with effusive praise. And as long as Dekker is scoring at the rate he did on Tuesday night, with confidence spilling out for all to see, it will be awfully difficult to keep one of the best reserves in the Big Ten off the court as March approaches.
“Every time Sam had the ball,” Badgers guard Ben Brust said, “I ran back because I knew it was going in.”