It seems that I pulled the Frank Kaminsky dancing GIF card a tad early. However, I found another and have no problem taking complete advantage of it.
I apologize if I come off as completely biased in this article. However, before you continue reading I must tell you that I am completely biased. I have been a diehard Duke fan as long as I can remember (raised by a Duke graduate) and a huge Wisconsin fan since I was seven (long story). Monday is about the biggest no-lose situation I have ever encountered in the world of sports. The only problem is which team I’ll root for. That will remain confidential.
National Semifinal Recap
1. Duke vs. 7. Michigan State
Duke W 81-61
This game has been almost entirely eclipsed by the “Kentucky Lost” storyline. Michigan State looked like they had a good chance to win early on, scoring 14 points in the first four minutes and 4-4 on threes. Then they went ice cold and Duke capitalized, finishing the half on a 30-11 run and taking an eleven-point lead into the half. Michigan State could simply not compete with Duke’s vast array of weapons. Duke is not a deep team at all, but their starters are getting the job done on a high level and proving that depth is far more valuable in the regular season than the tournament (sorry, Kentucky).
Michigan State’s run should not be discounted simply because they lost by 20. Early on in the season they barely looked like a tournament team, let alone one capable of getting to the Final Four. Tom Izzo did an amazing job with a group that was far from the most talented he’s ever had, and the team peaked at the right time. Meanwhile, Mike Krzyzewski is taking his team to the title game to try and grab the Blue Devils’ fifth National Championship, all of which would have occurred in the past 25 years.
1. Kentucky vs. 1. Wisconsin
Wisconsin W 71-64
Me: (Calmly speaking to myself): Do not call Coach Calipari an arrogant bastard. Do not say he got what he had coming to him based on his incessant lack of concern during close games. And do not say Andrew Harrison should get all his college statistics vacated following his terrible post-game slur directed to the National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky.
Oh, hello. That was just me preparing for the recap of this game and attempting to stay fair and balanced. It’s not going well.
No one should consider the outcome of this game a surprise. I picked Kentucky but called it a toss-up because I knew Wisconsin was going to see what Notre Dame did to Kentucky in the paint last week and adjust their game plan to take Kentucky off the dribble. They managed to out-rebound the 21st-best rebounding team in the country 34-22. Every time Bronson Koenig or Traevon Jackson brought the ball over half court for the Badgers, I instantly spotted at least one mismatch on the wing. Usually it was of the Sam Dekker-Willie Caulie-Stein or Nigel Hayes-Karl-Anthony Towns variety. Since Kentucky plays two bigs almost all the time and Wisconsin only plays one (Kaminsky), it almost always left a match-up to be exploited by one of Wisconsin’s long and athletic forwards (Hayes finished with 12 points and Dekker with 16).
There were some controversial calls in the final minutes. I get it, Nigel Hayes’s shot as the shot clock expired should not have counted. But Trey Lyles may have deserved a foul as well after……. oh, I don’t know……. Maybe slapping Josh Gasser in the face?? (Watch #21 in red)
My man Josh Gasser got smacked silly. That should have been a flagrant, which would have been two shots and the ball for Wisconsin. Gasser would hit both free throws like he always does and then Wisconsin would get another chance to score. So the no-call on the slap was actually worse than the shot clock mishap.
Plus, Nigel Hayes is just too funny.
Getting back to the actual game, it really was a fantastic forty minutes. Wisconsin dominated Kentucky off the dribble, particularly Frank Kaminsky when he was matched up against one of Kentucky’s bigs on the perimeter. Kaminsky played point guard in high school, which is partially why he is so adept at driving on seven-footers and making them uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Kentucky actually shot very well against the Badgers, particularly in the first half when they were hitting 60% of their attempts. The teams traded runs late, Kentucky going on a 16-4 run to take a four-point lead and Wisconsin following it up by closing the game on a 15-4 run.
Even though a lot of people didn’t like Kentucky (including myself), they had an amazing season. Calipari managed to get a large group of hotshot McDonald’s All-Americans to form the best defensive unit in the nation. Most of the team will go pro, and I’m sure several will be successful, especially Karl-Anthony Towns, the projected #1 pick. As I said about Wisconsin last season when they lost to Kentucky in the Final Four, they had a great season.
National Championship Preview
1. Duke vs. 1. Wisconsin
As I’ve said, this game epitomizes a no-lose situation for myself. I am prepared to sit back and watch it unfurl. One of my teams is guaranteed the title at this point, so I can only hope for a good game. I am sure that we will receive one.
Yes, these teams have met already this season. Duke took that game by a score of 80-70, especially impressive when you consider that the game was at the Kohl Center in Madison, one of the nation’s toughest venues. However, that game took place over four months ago and the match-up looks entirely different for many reasons, but a few in particular.
1. No Rasheed Sulaimon
Although Sulaimon’s dismissal from the team seemed to help Duke in the long run, he scored 14 points on 5-8 shooting the first time the teams met. However, Matt Jones and Grayson Allen can be reasonably counted on to at least match Sulaimon’s contributions.
2. Traevon Jackson has been replaced by Bronson Koenig
Jackson dominated in the first meeting between Duke and Wisky, scoring a career-high 25 points. Soon after, he broke his foot, sidelining him all the way until Wisconsin beat North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen. The Badgers are sticking with Bronson Koenig as their starter, who I think runs Wisconsin’s offense slightly better than the senior Jackson.
3. Several players are much better than they were in December
This is the most important point of them all. Justise Winslow was nowhere near the force at the start of the season as he is now. He scored 5 points on December 3. In the tournament he is averaging 15. He currently looks like the best small forward in the entire nation, challenged only by…
Sam Dekker also scored 5 in the first game. He is now averaging a whopping 21 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. Against Kentucky he put up his weakest total so far with 16. The fact that ESPN is currently not projecting him as a lottery pick is a crime. He actually is very similar to Justise Winslow, only with less shot blocking ability and better free throw shooting.
Nigel Hayes also improved vastly as the year progressed. He scored four in the first meeting and is averaging over 12 points per game in his five tournament games. He is a very good distributor as well, particularly on drive-and-kicks.
These three players have all progressed mightily and are the primary reason why you cannot predict a winner of the championship game based on the last time the two teams played. That was four months ago and the teams are entirely different. Would anyone have said Michigan State was making the Final Four in December when they lost at home to Texas Southern? I’d doubt it.
The last time the teams played, Kaminsky and Okafor basically canceled each other out. Kaminsky scored more but with a far worse field goal percentage and also out-rebounded Okafor by a margin of 3. Kaminsky is playing very well since his poor game against UNC in the Sweet Sixteen. Meanwhile, Okafor has been overshadowed by Justise Winslow’s performance lately but is still a great post presence. The match-up in the post between the two centers is going to be the one to watch, although there are certainly other good ones.
The match-up that I ultimately think will sway the game is not Kaminsky-Okafor, and it’s not Dekker-Winslow. Those players are too comparable to each other and I don’t think one will significantly outplay the other. However, Nigel Hayes has a huge advantage over Duke’s other big, Amile Jefferson (I am figuring Coach K will stick Winslow on Dekker because he is the bigger threat to score. However, based on the players’ heights, it is possible that Jefferson ends up covering Dekker. If that is the case, Jefferson will get dominated. For now, let’s figure it’s Jefferson-Hayes). Jefferson is slow and doesn’t grab a ton of rebounds for his height. He cannot match the athleticism of Hayes and will have difficulty controlling him in the post, which is the only area from which Jefferson can score. Hayes will command the defense to slide with help every time he takes Jefferson off the dribble.
Duke definitely has the advantage at the guard position. Quinn Cook is an animal and a fierce competitor when he is on the court. Meanwhile, Tyus Jones has received more attention than Cook due to his gaudy scoring numbers and clutch play late in games. However, Wisconsin has one of the best defensive guards in the nation with Josh Gasser to neutralize one of them at a time on the perimeter.
The other thing to consider is Duke’s absurd shooting percentage in December. They shot 30-46 (65%) against the Badgers. Just as I said when Wisconsin dropped 10 threes on Arizona in the second half of their Elite Eight game, that kind of performance is not repeatable.
It is hard to predict this game with so many dynamic players. I expect it to be a nail biter. However, I am leaning towards Wisconsin – maybe 50.1%-49.9% – because I have more trust in their veteran leadership (Kaminsky, Dekker, Gasser, Jackson, and Duje Dukan are all seniors except for Dekker, who is a junior) over Duke’s youth (Cook is the only senior. Amile Jefferson is a junior. Tyus Jones, Okafor, and Winslow are all freshmen). Wisconsin’s last championship appearance was in 1941. I expect their players to want the victory more.
Regardless of what happens, this should be a great game between the two best basketball teams in the nation, led by the best two coaches in the nation and the two best players in the nation. Whoever comes out on top deserves it. Let’s savor this match-up.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Sean Gallipo