Five Thoughts: Duke vs. Wisconsin

They’ve already played once and on Monday night they’ll play for the National Championship. Here are some observations and predictions for Duke’s shot at a fifth national title.

1. Duke’s best game is better than Wisconsin’s:

While it’s clear that neither team is the same one that played in Madison in early December, that game wasn’t a complete throw away in terms of predictive value. The Badgers tipped off that contest favored and in front of a very hostile (towards Duke) crowd and were expected to lean on their experience to teach these young Blue Devils a lesson. Forty minutes later the more naturally talented team had overcome their youth and outpaced their hosts. And done so convincingly. Were it not for the heroics of Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson (25 points on 7-of-12 shooting), Duke could have extended the margin even further.

Simply put, Wisconsin didn’t play poorly … Duke was just better on that night.

"Yeah I would say they hit some tough shots ... but to have that many do it, that's just not fair," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said following the game. "They were lights out."

Since December the Blue Devils have repeatedly hit that “lights out” level of play, and were they able to maintain that level on a nightly basis, this game likely wouldn’t be thought of as a pick’em by the betting houses. But, as with most young players, there have been spells of play that look disinterested, disjointed, and worse. It’s why Duke can blow out the eventual ACC Champion by 30 plus in Cameron, beat the ACC regular season champion on their home court, but also lose at home to Miami and be blasted by NC State (whom they later ran out of the gym).

Wisconsin has also shown the ability to get great results (just look at Saturday night), but they are more willing and capable to grind them out. Duke prefers to land haymakers. If Duke can control the tempo and put together a near 40 minute performance at the team’s highest level, it’ll be hard for Wisconsin to match it. However, the flip side for Duke is also true. If they experience too many lulls against the Badgers, it’ll be nearly impossible to come back similar to the game against Notre Dame in the ACC semifinal round.

2. Duke isn’t going to stop Frank Kaminsky from getting a double-double

In the first game the Blue Devils gave up 17 points and 9 rebounds to the National Player of the Year, and he’s been held under 10 points just once in 38 games this season. With the ability score from the outside and a mixture of craftiness and toughness around the basket, Kaminsky is simply “going to get his”. We went for 20 and 11 against Kentucky and made 7-of-11 shots from the field and five of his six free throws as well. And he did while playing 37 minutes.

Perhaps the best defense Duke can play against Kaminsky is sending the ball inside to Jahlil Okafor who went right at the Badgers’ center for most of the first match-up and was never truly bothered. Wisconsin, much like Michigan State, will look to make Okafor move on the defensive end and will hope to tire him out. Okafor isn’t a great area rebounder, and has had tendency to get lost on boxing out assignments at times. Kaminsky’s smart enough to establish the right position and can make Duke work hard, and with the concerns of Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes on the perimeter, it’ll be tough to hold the Wisconsin leader under something close to 20 points and 10 rebounds. At least.

3. Justise Winslow and Sam Dekker are going to be problems for their opponents.

Both players were rendered somewhat ineffective in the first round between the two teams with Winslow recording five points and five rebounds in 32 minutes and Dekker contributing five points and four rebounds in 24 minutes. Neither shot well with Winslow missing four of six shots and Dekker missing three of five.

Now, five months later, it’s no stretch to list both players as the most dynamic and explosive on their teams.

Winslow is averaging 15.0 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.6 steals in NCAA Tournament play. He is shooting 54.3 percent (25-of-46) from the field, including 58.3 percent (7-of-12) from three-point range. Meanwhile Dekker has gone for 20.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in the Badgers five games. He is shooting 61.3 percent (38-of-62) from the field including 50.0 percent (15-of-30) from three-point range.

Dekker could cause Winslow problems with his height advantage and quick release, whereas Winslow could force Dekker out of his comfort zone by driving and attacking the rim. Wisconsin could also throw Nigel Hayes at Winslow and Duke could track Dekker with either Matt Jones or even Amile Jefferson. Much like Okafor and Kaminsky could cancel one another out, these two wing players could push one another on both ends of the court. That wasn’t the case in the first game as Dekker was banged up and Winslow was still adapting to the college game. Five months later, and you’ve got a high major matchup.

4. Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook can drive home their point

Duke’s Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones have been terrific this season. When Duke has need big shots, it’s been either of the two point guards willing to step up and that included the game deciding spurts at Wisconsin where the duo combined for 35 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the floor and 4-of-6 from the perimeter. In that game Jones was brilliant and announced himself as one of the best guards in the country despite his short experience by scoring 22 points, grabbing six rebounds, and handing out four assists in in 37 minutes.

Cook has been the team’s other big shot taker this year, but has put scoring on the back burner over the last few weeks as the Blue Devils have improved tremendously on the defensive end - thanks in large part to Cook emerging as the team’s defensive ace on the perimeter.

Neither player has had the kind of big game performance we’ve seen throughout the season, though both have been steady. Cook has averaged 15.0 points per game while shooting 24-of-52 from the field (46.1 percent) and 11-of-27 from the perimeter (40.7 percent). Meanwhile Jones has gone for 11.0 points, 5.2 assists, and 2.8 rebounds while shooting 18-of-46 from the field (39.1 percent) and only 4-of-14 from long range (28.6 percent).

Throughout this run Duke has gotten solid guard play, but to get by Wisconsin the Blue Devils will need more than that. In their final game together, there would be no better way to drive home their proclamations of being the nation’s best backcourt.

5. Duke is going to win

The storyline is there for Wisconsin to be a team of destiny. After all, the Badgers did beat Kentucky on Saturday evening which sets them up as the potential media darlings and Duke in the familiar role of villains. That’s a nice setup, and Wisconsin is certainly a worthy champion - a team who can score the basketball made up of juniors and seniors who are efficient and seemingly unflappable - but, Duke has been and can be better. The Blue Devils have yet to have a big game from the perimeter in the tournament and the Badgers are allowing teams to shoot nearly 50 percent from long range. For Duke to win a fifth title they are going to need to play one of their most complete games of the season in what promises to be the final game in a Duke uniform for several of these players. We think it’ll be a game of ebbs and flows with a lot of offense. But, at the end of the day, we see the Blue Devils winning by five.

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