Sam Dekker injured his ankle in practice on Oct. 24, just a short few weeks from the start of a fully-hyped 2014-15 Wisconsin basketball season. The injury threatened a season in which the junior was going to bring his Badgers back to the promised land, the Final Four.
With Ben Brust's graduation, Dekker anticipated the responsibility of becoming the team's secondary scorer next to Frank Kaminsky. He had dealt with heightened expectations the year before, with mixed results.
After a superb freshman season in Madison as a sixth man, Dekker was expected to light the country on fire as a sophomore with his smooth deep jumper, swift slashing ability and highlight-reel reverse dunks and drives in transition. Yet his three-point percentage dropped from 39.1 percent to 32.6 percent with his increase in minutes. Even with the Badgers reaching their first Final Four since the remarkable run in 2000, Dekker's season could be considered a down year by many.
A year later, with Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes joining Dekker in what many believed to be one of the best frontcourt trios in the nation, Wisconsin had the size and offensive firepower to play with any team in the country, including uber-talented Kentucky. Dekker raised his profile over the summer with outstanding performances in elite camps. He was set to enjoy pro talent evaluators lining up to see him play in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament and in a primetime, top-five battle against Duke at the Kohl Center on Dec. 3.
So just how far has Wisconsin basketball come?
The bulk of the NCAA tournament is still to be played, but the Badgers' effort in Thursday's Sweet 16 game could be program-altering.
Yet this measly practice injury stifled his chances of not only helping his team win, but also improving his draft stock.
The Badgers' non-conference season consisted of 13 games, including huge matchups with Duke, Oklahoma and Georgetown, all of whom were granted top-four seeds in their respective regions in the NCAA tournament.
Dekker was not content with losing the start of his junior season to this injury. He battled right back.
He started the season with three straight double-digit scoring outputs -- 15 against Northern Kentucky, 18 against Chattanooga and 19 against UW-Green Bay. Dekker followed with two slow performances and little scoring against Boise State and UAB. He picked it back up against Georgetown, finishing with 17 points and six rebounds, and also posted 11 points against Oklahoma to close a steady Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
The team returned home with five days until the most anticipated basketball game of the entire college season, a home meeting with Duke. Wisconsin was ranked No. 2 while Duke was No. 4. After two solid performances in the Bahamas, Dekker was thought to be fully healthy heading into the game. He wasn't.
The junior forward laid a dud in front of the entire country and dozens of NBA scouts. This was largely due to his slow-healing ankle. Dekker recorded five points and four rebounds that night, and Wisconsin picked up its first defeat.
However, the Duke game was the turning point of Dekker's junior season, in my opinion. Even with his ankle issues not completely resolved, Dekker seemed on a mission from that point forward. He finished the non-conference season in solid fashion and said after the Nicholls State blowout that his ankle was finally, significantly improving. Dekker owned the Big Ten from that point forward. His scoring, rebounding and assist averages all went up after his ankle finally healed at the start of the conference season.
Throughout the season, Dekker has been out of the spotlight supposedly meant for him as a blue-chip, five-star recruit out Sheboygan Lutheran. And he has been IJ with it. He has constantly worked to get better on defense, three-point shooting and his footwork in the paint.
A prime example, and probably his best performance all season, was in the quarterfinal of the Big Ten tournament against Michigan, in which he was a rock star in every stat category and brought energy on each end of the court. Dekker scored 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting, hit both of his attempts at the charity stripe and nailed a three-pointer, but it wasn't his ability to put points on the board that made the day special. Dekker also grabbed six rebounds and dished out a career-high six assists, showing his ability to get all of his teammates involved, and most importantly, in a game that really counted.
Without "season to remember" stat totals, many will say that Dekker's junior season has been more evidence that he cannot live up to the lofty expectations set for him coming out of high school. What those critics do not realize is that Dekker has brought so much more to the hardwood than statistics and performances that light up the box score. His maturation into a complete team player and unshakeable perseverance are what we should remember about him.