The top-seeded Wisconsin Badgers received quite the test from the fourth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels on Thursday night in the Sweet 16. The Tar Heels led by seven points midway through the second half, but with the help of Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers stormed back and earned a trip to the Elite Eight with a 79-72 victory.
Dekker, not Kaminsky, was the star of this show, continuing a heck of a tournament run that has his NBA Draft stock at a high. Dekker combined for 37 points on 14-of-27 shooting in Wisconsin’s first two tournament games, and he stepped up with 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting against North Carolina.
The fact that Dekker put up 23 points was great in its own right, but it was the way he got those points that was especially impressive. After knocking down a three-pointer for his first bucket of the game, Dekker got the rest of his points in the paint. Time and again, the 6’9 forward showed off his versatility with drives to the basket, and he was consistently able to finish. The fact that he only went 1-of-5 from three was somewhat of a downer (his three-point shooting has been down all year), but his ability to get to the bucket more than made up for it, and his layup with 1:08 left helped Wisconsin stave off North Carolina.
Dekker didn’t just impact the game with his scoring. He made one of the biggest plays of the game when he snagged an offensive rebound off a Kaminsky miss with Wisconsin up one with 3:33 left in the game. That rebound turned into a huge Josh Gasser three-pointer. Dekker had 10 rebounds on the night, including three offensive, and he’s always making those kinds of plays to help the Badgers win.
Dekker is a consensus first-round pick at the moment, and that certainly isn’t going to change with the way he’s playing in this tournament. He has shown the ability to score in different ways, rebound and play on both ends of the floor. Getting into the lottery could be tough, but he’s making a strong case.
As for Kaminsky, he struggled in the first half to the tune of four points on 2-of-7 shooting. He had some issues against North Carolina’s long and athletic front line, but he picked his game up in the second half. Despite not playing one of his better overall games, the 7-footer still finished with 19 points and eight rebounds while shooting 5-of-11 from the field. He also knocked down a big three in the second half and helped salt the game away at the free throw line.
Kaminsky is a borderline lottery pick right now, and he’ll get a big chance to prove why he’s worth such a high pick against Arizona in the Elite Eight. The big man torched Aaron Gordon and the Wildcats in the Elite Eight last year, and we’ll see if he can do it again.
Now, let’s take a look at what happened to some of the other draft prospects on Thursday night.
Mixed bag for UNC prospects: Justin Jackson and Brice Johnson both had efficient scoring games in the loss to Wisconsin, with each player scoring 15 points. Jackson shot 6-of-11 and went 3-of-3 from three, continuing a trend of strong three-point shooting after a slow start to the season. Johnson went 7-of-9 from the field. Marcus Paige hit some threes with ice water in his veins in the final minutes to keep North Carolina in the game, but the point guard shot just 4-of-11 overall. J.P. Tokoto had a quiet game with four points, four rebounds and three assists, while Kennedy Meeks had four points and four boards.
Kentucky dominates despite little production from Towns: Karl-Anthony Towns is a potential No. 1 pick, but the big man was saddled with foul trouble in a 78-39 victory over West Virginia and only played 13 minutes. It was no matter, of course, because a host of other Wildcats stepped up. Trey Lyles was excellent with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting. He went 6-of-7 from the line and also grabbed seven rebounds. Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson helped anchor the defense, combining for five blocks as part of a defensive effort that held the Mountaineers to 24.1 percent shooting. Cauley-Stein and Johnson also combined for 20 points and 16 rebounds. (six offensive) Devin Booker finally knocked down a couple of threes, and both Harrison twins reached double figures in scoring.
Grant plays facilitator for Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish put together a nearly flawless offensive performance in an 81-70 win over Wichita State, and Jerian Grant was a big reason why. Grant didn’t have one of his typical scoring games, notching just nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. But instead of shooting a bunch, he played the role of facilitator by racking up 11 assists as Notre Dame shot 55.6 percent from the field. Demetrius Jackson was the big scorer for the Irish, scoring 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Will those two be able to keep it up against Kentucky on Saturday?
Quiet games for Arizona studs: Arizona and Xavier went back and forth in the late game of the night, but it was the Wildcats who came up with the victory. Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had relatively quiet games against Xavier’s zone defense, with Johnson putting up 12 points and six rebounds while Hollis-Jefferson had five points on 1-of-4 shooting. Johnson got off to a hot start with 10 points (two three-pointers) in the first half, but he didn’t make a field goal in the second half. Hollis-Jefferson simply can’t shoot the ball, but he still made his usual impact on defense with three steals. He also shook off what looked like a nasty leg injury. Senior point guard T.J. McConnell again led the way for Arizona, putting up 17 points, seven boards and five assists as he tries to impress NBA scouts enough for a team to take a chance on him in the second round.