Lucas at Large: Group effort guides Badgers to 8-0 start

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CANCUN, Mexico -- Wisconsin's Sam Dekker took the question in an all-encompassing vein after the Badgers held off West Virginia, 70-63, Wednesday night to capture the Cancun Challenge in Rivera Maya, Mexico.

What was the difference tonight, Sam?

"Us staying solid," he said. "We started playing our game and that got us the early lead. We went up 30-13 and they battled back. They (the Mountaineers) are a good shooting team.

"We just had to weather the storm and that's what we've been doing so far this season (during a 8-0 start) and if we continue to do that it will  be the difference in a lot of ball games."

 But what was the difference tonight, Sam - in Sam - what was the difference in your game?

"Me playing confident," he said. "I came out early kind of looking for my shot. On my first touch I hit that turnaround jumper and that felt good, so I kept attacking."

West Virginia started a frontline of 6-9 Devin Williams, 6-9 Nathan Adrian and 6-10 Kevin Noreen. The Mountaineers opened in a man-to-man defense and Williams, a freshman, drew Dekker.

"They put a big guy on me and I just wanted to keep taking him in the hole," Dekker said, "and that kind of propelled me to stay active. I waited for my moments and when I saw openings, I attacked."

Dekker, at times, was dominant. In the first half, he had 10 points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes. That matched his career high in rebounds. Dekker had eight against Marquette last season.

For more context, he had nine rebounds in the previous three games combined. His previous high this season had been seven, which he collected twice - against St. John's and Green Bay.

"They're always on me about how I've got to rebound more," Dekker acknowledged. "I have to be more active and more aggressive and use my length to get those boards and I was able to do that."

Dekker finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds, his first career double-double. It was more in line with the lofty expectations for Dekker who had stellar high school and AAU resumes.

On what made the difference in Dekker's game against West Virginia, UW point guard Traevon Jackson said, "He had the instinct on when to take over the game."

In this case, it was from the on-set - and then again - over the last five minutes.

"He didn't care about messing up, he didn't care about what he did wrong," said Jackson, adding that everything was predicated on focusing "on the next play" or the next possession.

"That's what we need Sam to do for us to be the team that we want to be. He's such a competitor and he's hard on himself a lot."

Did Dekker feel like he had been putting too much pressure on himself, maybe pressing?

"Pressing? No, I don't think so," Dekker said. "I just think teams were playing some good 'D' on me and I wasn't hitting the open shot.

"But you can't get down on yourself. You have to come out and play every possession. Our coaches preach that and I know they have confidence in me."

The confidence was rewarded after West Virginia came roaring back in the second half on the strength of a quicker three-guard line-up and a zone defense that caused problems for the Badgers.

Dekker responded with some 3-point daggers. When the Mountaineers closed within five points, 56-51, he hit a triple with 4:51 left. He got another at 2:54 and yet another at 1:23.

"I was working the baseline and the high post area against their zone," Dekker said, "but Trae (Jackson) was doing a great job of driving and kicking and I was able to hit those '3s."

Jackson ended up with seven assists against West Virginia.

"When we moved the ball," Jackson said, "we got wide open shots."

His shot wasn't falling, though. Jackson was 1-of-9 from the field.

"At the end of the day, I've got to hit shots," he said. "True shooters shoot the same way every time, no matter where they're at. I got away from that when I missed a couple.

"Luckily my teammates were hitting and I was able to find them."

Jackson, like Dekker, has a tendency to be too hard on himself. Not only did Jackson have seven assists and just one turnover in 35 minutes, he had a career-high 10 rebounds.

"Look at his stat line," Dekker said. "That's a true point guard right there. He didn't shoot the ball very well, but he did things when we needed him and he was a difference-maker on the court."

Jackson couldn't remember the last time that he reached double-digits in rebounds. But he rationalized his board work by saying, "I can't be a liability on the floor, I've got to do something."

Jackson and Dekker were named to the All-Tournament team in Cancun after the Badgers knocked off St. Louis and West Virginia. Dekker was selected as the Most Valuable player.

"It's cool," said Dekker. "But I've said it before: when your team does well, individual accolades will come. We worked together as a team and I was blessed to be this situation and get this award."

From game to game, Dekker and Jackson agreed, it seems like someone different is doing something positive to help this team win. It speaks to the unselfishness of the players, young and old.

"We jell, we get along off the court really well, we're all best friends," observed junior guard Josh Gasser who missed all of last season after undergoing ACL surgery.

"When we're on the court, it's just fun for. We're playing together and when you've got a group of unselfish guys who really want to win - and have common goals - good things can happen."

What is their team strength?

"Our versatility at both ends of the court," said Gasser. "We've got guys who can play inside and out on offense and defense. That poses matchup problems for other teams.

"We can put together a lot of different combinations on the court. It's definitely a positive. And that's where the unselfishness comes in."

To the extent, Gasser suggested, that no one cares who scores.

"One night Frank (Kaminsky) will go off; another night it will be Sam or someone else," he said. "We have a different guy every night who can really carry the load.

"It all starts with Traevon (as the point guard) and the leadership and energy that a lot of us bring to the game. If you try to stop one guy, others will step up and pick him up."

The winning formula will be put to the test with the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at Virginia on Wednesday followed by Saturday's always intense intra-state rivalry with Marquette at the Kohl Center.

The Badgers are 8-0 for the first time in 20 years. Dekker won't turn 20 until May. Maybe it's the youth in the locker room. But nobody is satisfied.

"We can always get better," Jackson said.

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