The No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers are welcoming the No. 24 Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday. Despite who wins, neither one of these teams will be ranked as high as they currently are when the next rankings come out.
Both teams are spiraling downward but only one can stop the bleeding this weekend. The other will continue to feel the pain that the last two weeks have provided both programs, except with a little extra salt.
The Badgers jumped out to their best start in school history at 16-0 and were ranked No. 3 in the nation when they received their first loss. That’s what makes this current slide so surprising and disheartening.
Not to be outdone, the Buckeyes began the year with a 15-0 record and also lost their first game when they were ranked No. 3 in the country.
But then the Big Ten happened.
Arguably the nation’s top conference, the Big Ten schedule has struck down and humbled the two incredibly hot teams. The two teams are a combined 7-10 in Big Ten play after starting the year a combined 31-0. Have two schools in the same conference ever started so great and then stumbled so fast before? I would venture to say… no, not to this degree.
These two teams both desperately need the win on Saturday. Their seasons, for the time being, depend on it. Fortunately for the Badgers, the game is at the Kohl Center. Although, Bucky is uncharacteristically just 2-2 at home in the Big Ten, allowing both Michigan and Northwestern to win in Madison for the first time in this millennium. Also, the Badgers are a staggering 1-4 in their last five contests. Wow.
So who will step up? Who will help salvage this season? Well, the Badgers’ last practice may have provided that answer.
After the Badgers’ practice on Thursday, sophomore Sam Dekker spoke his way into the role as team leader. Dekker is not known for giving serious quotes or for challenging his team. But, for the first time since his arrival in Madison, it seems as though this really is his team. If the Badgers ever needed a leader to step up since Bo Ryan took over the program; it’s now.
After the practice Dekker had a private conversation with Badgers assistant coach Gary Close and had many interesting things to say after.
“Coach Close expects a lot out of me,” Dekker continued, “And he’s a guy I like to open up to a lot. He said ‘hey, enough is enough. You have to be a leader.’ It’s time to stand up, be a man about it, go out there and do it – and you can’t just be talking.”
A lot of Badgers fans have been talking and making excuses for Wisconsin the last couple weeks for why this losing skid has continued but Dekker isn’t interested in hearing any of that.
“After the game you can’t make excuses, you can’t point fingers, you have to look at yourself,” Dekker said about the loss to Northwestern and continued, “Can all five guys that were on the court at a given time say that they were giving 100 percent effort?”
Dekker is averaging 14.0 points-per-game on the year but has come up lame in some big spots in some of the losses of the last two weeks; something a true leader has to correct. He spoke about knowing that he has to go make things happen and not liven the court solely by his reputation or confidence.
“People are going to see the weak dog,” Dekker said. “People are going to see, ‘oh that dog is lame, he’s looking soft, let’s go after him.’ People do that and you can’t just go out there and think that because I’m talented, I can hit a jumper that things are going to work for me.”
Dekker is saying all the right things right now and has matured into the leader of this shellshocked team. But, he knows that words alone cannot turn around this season and said,
“Enough with the words. We’ve got some changes (coming) where we can still do something pretty special with this team and you’ve got to believe that.”
I think I still believe. This team is a very talented and desperate team.
But Ohio State is just as desperate of a team as the Badgers and certainly have a leader in senior guard Aaron Craft trying to turn their season around. Step one for Dekker in becoming the recognized leader of the Badgers is backing up his words by putting Wisconsin back in the win column with a win on Saturday. A win that has to come from his hands.
The loser of this game will feel as low as possible, the winner will be able to breathe for the first time in weeks — if only for a couple days.
Here’s to hoping Dekker’s words translate into dominating performance against the Buckeyes, which could potentially save Wisconsin’s season.
The game will be on ESPN at 11:00 AM CT at the Kohl Center Saturday, Feb. 1.