Despite Badger athletics continuing to string together successful seasons–nine consecutive bowl appearances, 13 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances–Wisconsin remains an infrequent destination for the nation’s top prep athletes. Ask most any member of the athletic department or coaching staff (or most Wisconsin fans, for that matter) and they’re likely to tell you that’s just the way they like it. The “Wisconsin Way,” whether on the field or on the court, has traditionally been to target four-year players, emphasizing development and hard work, and making frequent use of the redshirt. Recruiting efforts strongly focus on the home front, mining talented players from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa. As the Badgers’ profile has risen, recruiting networks have expanded to match; with increasing regularity, the Badgers poach players from sporting strongholds like Florida and Ohio.
On the national scale, though, Wisconsin largely remains a second-tier school for the top high school athletes. Keeping so-called “homegrown” talent in-state is thus of the utmost importance. Naturally, a limited recruiting base means long odds when trying to nab top players. Five-star recruits don’t show up in Wisconsin (or anywhere) on an annual basis, and until last Saturday, the Badger State looked devoid of a player from that top tier again. That’s when it was reported that Sheboygan Lutheran’s Sam Dekker had been upgraded to a five-star basketball recruit by Rivals.com.
Dekker is ranked as the seventh-best small forward prospect in the country, and eclipses J.P. Tokoto as the top-ranked player in Wisconsin. Tokoto spurned the Badgers last March, committing to North Carolina and dashing Wisconsin’s hopes of snagging the state’s top two players. With Dekker’ national profile continuing to improve, however, the loss is easier to take. Dekker’s scouting report reads as a prototypical Wisconsin stud: a workhorse boasting scoring ability inside-and-out with solid rebounding and passing that should allow him to easily step into Bo Ryan’s swing offense.
It’s difficult to argue with results when debating the merits of Ryan’s recruiting efforts. Even without a constant stream of NBA prospects renting space in the locker room for 12-month stretches, the Badgers consistently challenge for conference titles and are perennial dancers during March Madness. Yet early exits are also a sadly predictable occurrence. Those fans who aren’t defending Ryan’s methods with pitchforks and torches are often left pointing to the lack of a go-to scorer or playmaker as the fatal flaw that undoes an otherwise exceptional season. Even if you knew nothing else about him, seeing those five little stars next to Dekker’s name offers hope that just such a player could be sporting a motion W in the near future.
Keep in mind though, Dekker’s fancy new label is just that: a label. It doesn’t make him a better player, it doesn’t make him an NBA prospect, it doesn’t even guarantee he’ll be a featured player at Wisconsin during his career. But it definitely gives hope to the fans, especially those cynical ones who lament the lack of star talent in Madison, that Bo Ryan will have the chance to work his magic (because there’s no denying his ability as a coach) with an exceptionally talented player. Dekker won’t make his Kohl Center debut until 2012 at the earliest, but the excitement is only going to grow until he does.