INDIANAPOLIS - The Associated Press ranked the University of Kentucky as the nation’s top team from the beginning of the season to the start of the NCAA tournament.
“Coming into the year, I thought (Wisconsin) would be the best team in the country,” he said. “And pretty much they have been. You know, it's just that Kentucky's undefeated performance overshadowed, I think, just how good Wisconsin has been until last night … where there were no shadows anymore.”
After knocking off the unbeaten, Wisconsin (36-3) meets up with Duke (34-4) in Monday night’s national finals at Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s the first title appearance for the Badgers in 74 yards. It’s the ninth title appearance for the Blue Devils since 1986.
It’s also the first championship game rematch of a regular-season meeting since Kentucky defeated Kansas in 2012. The past three times regular-season opponents met for the national title, the team that won the first meeting won on Monday night, as well. That goes for Connecticut beating Kentucky in 2011 and North Carolina beating Michigan State in 2009.
A lot has changed since fourth-ranked Duke’s 80-70 victory over the second-ranked Badgers at the Kohl Center December 3. That game was Duke’s first road game of the season and Wisconsin was coming off a physical three day tournament in the Bahamas.
The Blue Devils’ youthful roster ended up shooting 65.2 percent for the game, 71.4 percent in the second half and scored 32 points in the paint against a Wisconsin team that wasn't at full strength because of Sam Dekker's ankle.
“They shot the lights out,” said senior Josh Gasser. “They got into a rhythm and we let them get into a rhythm, and they just kept it going and we couldn’t stop them … It was too easy for them. They just could do whatever they’ve wanted. I hope we’ve gotten a lot better since then. They’ve gotten better.”
For Duke the changes start with the rotation. In December, Krzyzewski had junior power forward Amile Jefferson slotted in as his starting power forward, and he responded with six points and four rebounds in 25 minutes of action against the Badgers.
Over the last 12 games the Blue Devils have elected to go with a smaller lineup in favor of providing more space for Jahlil Okafor inside, meaning Justise Winlsow moved to the big forward position and Matt Jones is now the team’s starting small forward. As for Jefferson, he’s played 25 minutes or more just twice since January 25.
And speaking of Winslow, the freshman small forward was a minor note in the first game, recording just five points, five rebounds, and four turnovers against Wisconsin while shooting 2-of-6 from the field.
Since February 1 the freshman has averaged 14.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 91 of 163 from the floor (.558), 20 of 37 from the perimeter (.541), and 51 of 71 from the free throw line (.718). In five NCAA tournament games, Winslow is averaging 15 points and a team-best 9.4 rebounds.
Part of that confidence is having more games under their belt, but a piece of the building process was beating a top-two team on the road.
“It did a lot for our confidence, especially for our young guys, it being their first true road game,” said senior guard Quinn Cook. “The way they responded and played against a veteran team, a confident team just coming off the Final Four. It was shocking to me how we performed, especially our younger guys. They're a different team now. We're a different team. They're a lot better. They're playing as good as anyone. So we got our hands full tomorrow.”
Leading up to the first game, the hype rightly surrounded the battle in the paint as Duke’s Okafor matched up with Frank Kaminsky. Both players were considered National Player of the Year candidates at the time, and both lived up to the billing. Okafor missed only two shots and finished with 13 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes while Kaminsky went for 17 points (5-of-12 shooting) and nine rebounds for the Badgers.
Both players have put together fantastic seasons with Okafor becoming the first freshman to win ACC Player of the Year honors (leading the team with 17.5 points and 8.6 rebounds) and Kaminsky winning the Associated Press and USBWA National Player of the Year honors.
“To be the best, you got to beat the best,” said Kaminsky. “He's one of the best in the country, and Duke is one of the best teams in the country. We see it as another good matchup for us. We're going to do whatever we have to do to come out on top.”
Both teams have developed into efficient, no-ego offenses. Wisconsin remains first in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, scoring 128.5 points per 100 possessions, while Duke ranks third in the same category (121.7), has four players averaging over 11 points per game and another two chipping in 6.2 points.
Seats for Wisconsin-Duke in December was one of the most sought after tickets in the last decade of the program. Tomorrow night’s game figures to be equally desirable.
“Having played them this season, that will give us good experience and tell us what we need to do to be more successful against Duke,” said sophomore Bronson Koenig, who had three points 1-for-7 shooting off the bench. “We just got to do the same thing we did against Kentucky and just get stops when we need to, defend, just lock in like we did after that scoring drought we had (Friday). We know it’s going to be another battle.”
Scout.com's John Watson contributed to this report