One of two isn’t bad, as we nailed Duke getting past Michigan State in our Final Four picks, but missed the Badgers getting the best of the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats. We definitely saw the potential for the upset, but like just about everyone else, still are pinching ourselves a bit in the disbelief that it actually happened.
Believe it or not, the NCAA Men’s championship game is here and the Badgers will be playing in it for the first time since 1941. They happened to win it back then, and they just might have a pretty good chance at doing so again, almost 75 years later. More history is on their side than people may realize, as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski is winless in the title game against fellow #1 seed teams. The Badgers are tougher than your run of the mill one seed, too, since they’ve taken down the highest possible ranked opponent in every game throughout the tournament. That’s involved winning hard fought games against Oregon, North Carolina, Arizona and even Kentucky.
Along the way, it’s been easy to see how the Badgers get it done, as they execute one of the most efficient offenses college basketball has ever seen, they play sound defense, work to take away what you do best, avoid turnovers and strive to make more free throws than their opponents even attempt. This season, during Wisconsin’s 36-3 run, they’ve largely done all of those things on a game by game basis. Their run is even more impressive considering big man Frank Kaminsky wasn’t even on hand for one of their losses, a second loss was to a very solid Maryland team, while their only other loss on the year was to – you guessed it – the Blue Devils.
After just dispatching the favored Wildcats in the most hyped rematch in some time, the Badgers get a chance to exercise yet another demon – and on college basketball’s biggest stage, no less. The real question, of course, is can they actually defy the odds yet again and win a national title? Let’s break down the matchup a little further to find out:
Wisconsin Badgers (1) VS. Duke Blue Devils (1) 9:18 pm ET on CBS
Every game in this tournament has seen some terrific players carry their teams, and the further we get into March Madness, the more we see future NBA prospects show up big. For Wisconsin that’s been center Frank Kaminsky and swing man Sam Dekker. Kaminsky isn’t the best athlete in the world, but he is as versatile and balanced as they come. If Duke wants to out-muscle him down low, he can still make an impact with his size and length on both ends. And even if they do beat him with strength and athleticism in the paint, he can still kill you with his shooting from outside.
Dekker is a totally different problem, as he’s shown a knack for hitting big shots and when he gets hot from outside, it’s lights out. He’s just a piece to Wisconsin’s elite shooting/efficient puzzle, especially since he’s more than a shooter. Dekker has also done a terrific job at poking holes in defenses by taking the ball to the rack and finishing around the rim with his craftiness. If he can do it against Kentucky, there’s plenty of reason to suspect he can do it again Duke.
The darkhorse could end up being Nigel Hayes, who can clean the glass and finish around the rim or kill you from outside. His shot doesn’t always fall, but he seems to chime in with the deep ball when you least expect it, and also can least afford to allow it. If he comes up with a big game, he won’t just raise his draft stock, but he just might help the Badgers secure a national title.
The Blue Devils have their fair share of NBA talent, too. Potential top pick Jahlil Okafor has some of the best footwork you’ll see in this draft, while he also has the size, strength and athleticism to dominate at the college basketball level. That could mean a tough time for Kaminsky on the defensive end, although it’s worth noting Okafor isn’t exactly an elite defender. That being said, Okafor could be a huge transitional piece to Duke’s defense, as his elite offense down low could lead to some uncharacteristic foul trouble for the Badgers.
Whether or not Okafor steps up to the plate in the biggest game of his life, Duke will still have the versatile and explosive Justise Winslow to lean on. Winslow has shown the ability to take over at times for Duke, as he can hit open jumpers or create for himself and attack in the paint. If he’s finding a way to dominate in this matchup, he’ll be carrying a heavy stick offensively as a guy who can create for himself and open the floodgates for his teammates.
The general strategy for Wisconsin is to simply keep doing what they’ve been doing. If they play sound defense, control the tempo, don’t turn the ball over and win the battle at the charity stripe, they should be able to emerge as the winner. For Duke, they will probably have to beat Wisconsin offensively by winning with dribble penetration and hitting their outside shots. They won’t win in a defensive battle, while their strength (making free throws) could be tough to maximize due to Wisconsin playing a low risk defensive style that avoids too many fouls.
The specific game strategy for the Badgers is going to play sound defense and get Sam Dekker involved. The last time these two teams faced, in was a floor race that had the Blue Devils up by just three (35-32) at the break, and saw them pull away late for an 80-70 win. That game was in Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, too, so it’s worth noting that the Badgers got out-played in a huge game on their home floor. That was just the eighth game of the year, however, and the Badgers have obviously become a much more disciplined team since then. They also relied heavily on star point guard Traevon Jackson in that game (25 points) and should spread things out a lot more offensively this time around.
And the Winners is…
Wisconsin already seeing Duke’s best up close and personal this year could work in their favor. They know the mistakes they made in general, as well as how they specifically relate to the Blue Devils. Their main problems were dribble penetration, closing out on outside shooters and poor shooting on offense. Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have all been huge players for the Badgers during their run through March Madness, yet in the previous battle the combined for 12 points. That’s extremely unlikely to happen again. Defensively, we just saw Wisconsin go to battle and win against a superior post team in Kentucky, so despite Okafor’s presence, it’s doubtful they’ll let him abuse them all day. The key will be the dribble penetration and outside shooting, which helped Duke shoot a ridiculous 65% in the last meeting. That isn’t likely to happen again, either. If the Badgers can bring the defense and remain efficient on offense, they should prove that their run isn’t some random fluke and that they simply just truly are the best team in the nation this year.
Pick: Badgers 71, Blue Devils 67