After beating No.8 Oregon, No.4 North Carolina, No.2 Arizona and No.1 Kentucky, Wisconsin’s road to a possible second national championship has one more speed bump … and it comes against one of the biggest bluebloods of them all. After wrecking Kentucky’s undefeated season Saturday night, UW will prepare to face fellow one seed Duke (34-4, 15-3 ACC) for the NCAA title Monday night in what is unquestionably the biggest game in school history.
“It has been really tough, but we have been prepared for that going through a grueling Big Ten season,” Josh Gasser said. “The Big Ten prepares you for stuff like this. You play every style of teams, big teams, fast teams, physical teams, and you have to do the little things if you want to win the Big Ten and we can translate that to big games. To be able to beat North Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky and now have a chance at Duke, that is pretty remarkable for a school that is not considered a powerhouse...We play really hard, and we prepare well. We have great coaches and players, and we just have to try and get one more.”
One common theme amongst teams Wisconsin has faced in the tournament this year has been its ability to consistently score the basketball, as Wisconsin faced three consecutive teams (Oregon, North Carolina and Arizona) that ranked in the top 25 in the NCAA in scoring offense. None of those opponents exceeded its scoring average against Wisconsin.
Duke is no different. The Blue Devils average 79.6 points a contest, which ranks fifth in the NCAA. During Wisconsin’s 80-70 loss to Duke in Madison, the Blue Devils proved how dangerous of a team they are when clicking on all cylinders on offense.
“They shot lights out, they just got into a rhythm, we let them get into a rhythm and we could not stop them,” Gasser said, as Duke shot 65.2 percent from the field. “I don’t think we got more than two consecutive stops the whole game, which is pretty remarkable, so you have to give them a lot credit for that. I hope we got a lot better since then. I know they’ve gotten better. If we want any chance of winning we’ll have to play really well, especially on the defensive end. Hopefully they don’t shoot the same percentage again. You can take some of it away but they also made a lot of great shots.”
Wisconsin entered its matchup with Duke having held opponents to an average of 50.5 points through its first seven games, which included four NCAA tournament teams. That didn’t stop the Blue Devils from dominating the paint and getting out in transition.
With that game being played just over four months ago, it’s evident that a lot has changed between both teams.
“This group has always been pretty resilient,” assistant coach Gary Close said. “They’ve always been pretty steady in terms of not getting too high when they win and not getting too low when they lose. More importantly striving to get better, saying ‘here’s what we need to do to get better,’ and they do a pretty good job about changing it.”
Wisconsin has faced five teams that ranked in the top 25 in scoring offense this year, but the Badgers were able to hold their opponents to an average of 68.2 points a game in those contests. With Wisconsin’s best performance came on the road when they held Ohio State to 48 points March 8.
Although Wisconsin has been a fairly consistent defensive team, the Badgers have struggled at times to prevent teams from shooting a solid percentage, While UW is allowing teams to shoot 42.7 percent from the field, the Badgers have allowed eight teams to shoot over 50 percent for a game. That includes the Blue Devils’ shooting 65.2 percent in the win in Madison (a season high for a UW opponent). Like its scoring offense, Duke’s team field goal percentage ranks in the top five in the NCAA, as they shoot 50.2 percent from the field, which ranks third.
“I think we’re happy that we’ve seen them before because we can see different situations that work better or didn’t work, and we can just learn from it,” senior Duje Dukan said. “We’ve looked at the film and saw what things we need to improve upon and we’re excited for Monday night.”
Although it will be key to make sure Wisconsin limits post touches by ACC player of the year Jahlil Okafor, it will also start with finding a way of slowing down Tyus Jones, who was a big reason why Duke left Madison with a 10-point victory with a team-high 22 points.
“He’s a huge challenge; he killed us in the first game,” Gasser said of Tyus Jones who was named Most Outstanding East Region Player. “It was kind of his breakout game to get him going. He’s a heck of a player. The ability to get to the hoop, draw fouls, and when he needs to make a big shot he has the clutch gene to knock it down.”
“I think that was my best game this season,” Jones added referring to the win over Wisconsin in December. “Early on in the season, that was really a game that gave me confidence and I credit my teammates for that. They were putting me in good positions to score the ball and I was able to set them up in return to make plays.”
Jones is one of four players to average double figures for the Blue Devils, as he is fourth on the team with 11.5 points a game. Okafor leads the way with 17.5 points a game, Quinn Cook is at 15.2 points and Justise Winslow is third at 12.7 points. But Jones makes his biggest impact distributing the basketball, as he averages 5.7 assists a game this season.
This will mark the fourth time Wisconsin and Duke have met all-time and it will be the first between the two schools in an NCAA tournament game. This will also be Mike Krzyzewski’s ninth championship game appearance. He is 4-4 all time, as he has been able to win his last two championship games (2000-01 and 2009-2010). At UW-Platteville, Bo Ryan went 4-0 in championship games.But with all the excitement back home of the Wisconsin being in the title game for the first time since 1941, the players remain focus at the task at hand, carrying the same mentality that helped them get to this point in the season.
“I can’t speak for everyone but I’m just treating it like any other game,” Gasser said. “Maybe that’s not a good thing but it’s just another 40 minutes of basketball. We know it’s a huge game, but if you make it bigger than it is, that’s when you don’t play your best.”