The Badgers, who have ascended 16 spots in the national rankings this season, now are considered legitimate Final Four contenders. Saturday provided a hint why.
Mary Langenfeld/Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
MADISON, Wis. — Nigel Hayes collected the basketball near half court, dribbled twice and lofted a high-arcing pass toward the hoop. On first glance, it appeared wide left, a highlight-reel fast break attempt gone wrong and headed out of bounds.
Then, Sam Dekker caught up to the pass and leapt, his outstretched right hand gathering the ball at the peak of his jump. He emphatically slammed the ball through the hoop to give Wisconsin a 24-point lead in a game that had truthfully been over since close to tip-off.
Wisconsin’s bench held each other back, laughing in disbelief, while Dekker jogged down the court, failing to stifle a smile himself.
Who could blame Dekker and crew? The rollicking good time has stretched on for two months now, and it continued Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center, when No. 4 Wisconsin polished off the nonconference portion of its schedule with an 80-43 drubbing of Prairie View A&M.
Wisconsin has reached Big Ten play with a perfect 13-0 record that has surprised even the most bullish of pundits. The Badgers, who have ascended 16 spots in the national rankings this season, now are considered legitimate Final Four contenders. Dekker’s play, grouped with the team’s stellar shooting ability, balanced scoring and improving defensive efforts have the Badgers aiming high.
Dekker finished with a game-best 16 points to go with 11 rebounds — his third double-double this season — and overtook center Frank Kaminsky for the team’s scoring leader. But afterward, much of the talk centered on the dunk that gave Wisconsin a 65-31 second-half lead and nearly brought the lid off the Kohl Center.
"The theory behind the pass was if I throw the pass near the rim, Sam dunks the ball, we clap, it may make the Wisconsin nightly news," Hayes said. "If I throw the ball high, almost out of bounds, behind the backboard and Sam dunks it, we’re talking SportsCenter top 10. All credit to Sam. Thanks for making me look good."
Added Dekker: "He threw it a little high. But good thing I got some extend-o arms that can go up and grab it. It was a good feed from Nigel, and he made me look good, too."
Even Badgers coach Bo Ryan got in on the spirit of things, rehashing the jam without being prompted by a question. And in typical Ryan fashion, he landed a light-hearted barb Dekker’s way.
"I just want to know how Sam caught that pass," Ryan quipped. "There’s no way in the world Sam was going to catch that pass with one hand. And I absolutely refuse to ever look at a replay. So as our guys were sitting in the huddle, you know I might be a little older, but I saw a lot of eyes looking up at the replay thing while we were sitting there at the timeout. So I heard a couple noises coming from the throats of the players.
"They were trying to muffle it. And then I said, ‘Guys, did they just show up there Sam getting blown by on a backdoor cut for two points for Prairie View?’ Well, then I had them where I wanted them. I guess it must have been something. So now I get to go home and look at it. I don’t know how he caught the ball and finished it."
Dekker’s slam certainly was the most impressive single play on the day, but it was not the only airborne showcase from Wisconsin. Forward Duje Dukan finished a wide-open slam down the lane, Hayes converted a baseline spin move for a dunk and Dekker tallied his first of two jams early in the game on a baseline drive.
Not to be overlooked, Wisconsin also won with its customary fundamentals, too. UW took a 7-0 lead on Ben Brust’s 3-pointer just three minutes into the game. The Badgers led 14-4 on Josh Gasser’s layup, never surrendered their double-digit edge and turned the ball over just twice. When Hayes followed by converting a three-point play, Wisconsin had more players in the scoring column (seven) than Prairie View A&M had total points (six).
It was the type of performance many expected against a Prairie View A&M team (2-10) that hasn’t won a game in a month. But it didn’t diminish the Badgers’ overall nonconference accomplishments.
Wisconsin’s 13-game winning streak is the second-longest in the modern era, behind only the 17 straight victories the 2006-07 team put together on its way to the program’s only No. 1 national ranking.
Maybe college basketball gurus didn’t see this start coming given difficult games against St. John’s, Florida, St. Louis, West Virginia, Virginia and Marquette. But players acknowledged 13-0 was a realistic feat even before the season began.
"I definitely think so," Kaminsky said. "Just like I expect us to win the Big Ten championship this year. . . .
"I think if you talk to anyone in our locker room, they’ll say the same thing. We were so close last year. To not come away with it in the Big Ten tournament left a sorry taste in our mouth. We really want it this year, and we’re going to do everything we can to get that."
Players have talked for weeks about the Big Ten grind that awaits after the New Year, when competition stiffens against familiar opponents in arguably the toughest league in the country. They will get their wish in five days when they open conference play at Northwestern.
Prairie View A&M coach Byron Rimm doesn’t have a magic 8-ball, but it was easy for him to predict Wisconsin being at or near the top of the Big Ten. He noted the Badgers were one of the best teams his squad had faced over the past couple of seasons. The Panthers already have played this year at Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Colorado State, BYU and UCLA.
"They do everything great," Rimm said of Wisconsin. "One thing we could probably do better? Probably dance. That’s probably one thing we can do better than them."
We’ll never know the answer for sure, of course. What is becoming more certain as the curtain closes on December? Wisconsin’s high flyers could be dancing deep into March. And at this rate, perhaps even April.