Rarely does a title game feel anticlimactic—especially if it involves two of the top four ranked teams in the country, and one of them is Duke—but that’s what we have in store for Monday night when Wisconsin takes on the aforementioned Blue Devils, in the aftermath of Kentucky’s shocking loss in the national semis.
The Badgers already took the air out of the ball when they did the impossible and slayed college basketball’s giant on Saturday night. Now they hope to do what Duke did 24 years ago after they took down heavily favored and previously undefeated UNLV (also in the semis) in having enough left to win the title game two nights later over Kansas.
Duke, which already beat Wisconsin earlier in the season, poses a major threat as always, though they were in Kentucky’s shadow for most of the season—an unusual position for Coach K since his teams started dominating the college basketball landscape some 30 years ago.
But this year, it was the Wildcats who looked invincible until Wisconsin took them down. Their plan seemed simple: Move Frank Kaminsky inside and out to create mismatches and thus keep pace with the Wildcats and then execute down the stretch. Easier said than done, but they did it and will have to do it again Monday night.
The plan also works better if you have the player of the year in Kaminsky, who is an impossible matchup due to his inside-outside game.
The 7-footer, after struggling against Kentucky in last year’s Final Four, was determined to put last year’s loss behind him, putting up 20 points and 11 rebounds in the win and helping the Badgers out-rebound the taller Wildcats 34–22.
But the real X-factor was the clutch Sam Dekker. He scored 16 points off an efficient 6-for-9 shooting and hit the game’s biggest shot—a tie-breaking three with 1:44 left that put the Badgers ahead for good.
Dekker has been on fire the whole tournament and should give Duke all kinds of fits in the rematch. The 6-foot-9 forward has averaged 20.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in the NCAA Tournament while shooting 61 percent from the floor—including 50 percent (15–30) from three-point land.
When Duke beat the Badgers earlier in the year—which was in Wisconsin, I might add—Dekker was almost invisible, thanks in part to an ankle injury. The junior forward tallied just five points in the 80–70 loss.
The real loss that day was Bo Ryan’s defense. Duke shot an unheard-of 65 percent from the floor, with freshman point guard Tyus Jones (22 points) leading the way.
Meanwhile fellow freshman Jahlil Okafor scored just 13 points but hit an efficient 6 of 8 shots. He’s still the player their offense revolves around, as he showed against Michigan State. The young center scored 18 points, despite all the attention the Spartans put on him, and Wisconsin will have similar problems in guarding him that they had in taking on center Karl-Anthony Towns in the previous round.
But Wisconsin survived Towns, thanks to some great team defense, and avenged an ugly loss at the same time. They look ready to repeat their game-plan on Monday. Prediction: Wisconsin 74, Duke 71.