Chemistry drives No. 4 Wisconsin

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Jeff Potrykus, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, January 5, 2014

MADISON—Sophomore forward Sam Dekker was going through pregame warm-ups with his Wisconsin teammates Thursday night when associate head coach Greg Gard approached armed with questions.

“He came over,” Dekker said, “and asked: ‘You guys ready? You guys prepared? You’re a little squirrely.’”

Dekker’s response: “We’re fine, Coach. We warm up like this every day. We came out and played well.”

Fourth-ranked UW (14-0, 1-0 Big Ten) raced to a 40-14 halftime lead en route to a 76-49 victory over Northwestern.

The Wildcats (7-7, 0-1) won’t be confused with No. 3 Ohio State or No. 5 Michigan State or No. 22 Iowa (12-2, 1-0), which plays UW at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Kohl Center.

However, Dekker’s point was that you can’t judge Bo Ryan’s team by appearances.

Ryan’s players may appear nonchalant during portions of practices and during warm-ups, but on the inside they are focused and resolved.

“We have a bunch of goofballs on our team,” said UW assistant Lamont Paris, pointing to Dekker and freshman forward Nigel Hayes as two of the ringleaders. “Nigel is a class clown to the nth degree. But as goofy as they are, they are guys who academically have done everything above and beyond. And on the court, when it is time to be serious and put your game face on they have it on.

“It is a different group. There haven’t been too many groups I’ve been around that can be like that and then when the game comes around they are really, really ready to go.”

Chemistry is an elusive trait that is difficult to measure on a stat sheet but easy to recognize during practices and workouts and bus rides and flights.

“This is the best natural chemistry that I’ve been around since I’ve been coaching,” said Paris, who started his coaching career as an assistant at Wooster in 1997-’98 and is in his fourth season at UW. “It’s not forced. It’s genuine. Guys are pro each other, even though they are going to compete for minutes.”

Two examples stand out—the manner in which Dekker quashed any conversation about when he will leave for a shot at the National Basketball Association and how junior point Traevon Jackson views freshman point guard Bronson Koenig.

Dekker told UW athletic communications department officials before the season he didn’t want to answer questions about the NBA. His reasoning: The topic would deflect attention from the team and its goals.

“At the end of the day he just wants to win,” Jackson said of Dekker. “His attitude is this: What can we do now? What championships can we win now? What is our next game?

“As long as he has that mind-set, everything else will take care of itself.”

Jackson, more of a shooting guard in high school, has started the last 43 games at the point for UW. Koenig was the state player of the year as a senior at La Crosse Aquinas and chose UW over North Carolina and other marquee programs.

Koenig’s passing, vision and ball-handling are remarkable, particularly for a first-year player. Yet it appears Jackson has embraced rather than rebuffed the presence of Koenig, who is averaging 3.8 points and 16.9 minutes per game and shooting 48.8%.

“Bronson’s job is to come in here and play the best he can play,” said Jackson, who is averaging 10.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and only 1.8 turnovers per game. “He is supposed to try to beat me out. That is how it is….

“My job is to help him out so that when I leave here he’ll be better than me and he can be one of the best that has ever played here.”

Koenig and Hayes, who has scored 17, 10 and 19 points in his last three games, are the most advanced members of a six-player freshman class. Four of the freshmen are playing.

“I have a great relationship with each person on this team,” redshirt junior guard Josh Gasser said. “Sixteen guys, that is hard to do. I get along with the freshmen like I’ve played with them for years….

“It is a different group. I don’t want to say immature. That’s not the right word. But we definitely do have a little immaturity in us—in a good way. We like to goof around and have fun. We’re young.

“I try to speak my mind sometimes when we get too loose. But at the same time, we’re winning and we’re playing hard and tough. Being a little loose isn’t the worst thing in the world.”

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