Duke and Wisconsin in pursuit of a National Championship

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Updated: April 6, 2015
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Before the NCAA Tournament began a few weeks ago, everyone around the country would have believed Kentucky was a lock to play in this year’s National Championship game. Instead, we have a matchup between the Wisconsin Badgers — who put an end to Kentucky’s undefeated season Saturday night — and the Duke Blue Devils.

Even though it would have been fun to watch Kentucky pursue a national title against Mike Krzyzewski and company, Bo Ryan‘s bunch has earned the right to play in front of the bright lights on Monday night in Indianapolis.

So no, it won’t be Karl-Anthony Towns against Jahlil Okafor. It will be Okafor going to battle against the Associated Press Player of the Year, Frank Kaminsky. And no, we won’t see Willie Cauley-Stein fly around dunking the basketball. Instead, it will be Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes and company preparing to face-off against Justise Winslow, Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones.

It will be experience against youth, and that experience paid off for the Badgers against the Wildcats. Wisconsin has four seniors who are a part of the rotation, Kaminsky, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan, one junior in Dekker, and two sophomores, in Hayes and Bronson Koenig.

On the other hand, Duke has three freshmen who lead the way, in Okafor, Winslow and Tyus Jones, one sophomore in Matt Jones, a junior in Amile Jefferson and one lone senior, in Cook.

However, at this point of the season, none of those Duke players are looking like freshmen anymore. Winslow is a perfect example, as he averaged 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds during the regular season, but has stepped his game up during the tournament, averaging 17.3 points and 9.0 rebounds. He’s gone from maybe a mid-to-late first-round draft selection, to possibly being a lottery pick — top five at that.

Tyus continued to improve as the season progressed. He just kept showing more and more poise from the point guard position, and also proved to have a clutch gene in a few games — most notably the victory at home against North Carolina, where he scored nine straight points at the end of regulation, including the game-tying layup to force overtime. He finished with 22 points that night, and dropped 24 on the Tar Heels the second go around in Chapel Hill.

Cook has been a well-polished senior for the Blue Devils. He’s looking like a potential draftee himself, as he’s helped Duke form one of the most potent backcourts in America. He was second on the team in scoring this season, behind Okafor, averaging 15.6 points per game. Cook has locked down opposing guards on the defensive end, and knocked down shot after shot when given space.

Duke has cruised through this tournament thus far, winning their five games by a combined margin of 17.6 points. And they were dominant against Tom Izzo‘s Michigan State team Saturday, beating them by 20 points.

However, I doubt that will be the case against the veteran-led Badgers.

After losing to Kentucky in the Final Four last year, Kaminsky and company have seemed determined to win a national championship this season. Not only was Frank “the Tank” voted to the Associated Press All-America first team, to go along with his Player of the Year award, he was also named Naismith Player of the Year on Sunday — and could end up being the Wooden Award winner. A title is now the only thing the 7-footer is lacking.

He scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against the “bigger and badder” Wildcats of Kentucky, and scored 29 points in the Elite Eight against Arizona. The scary thing is, his running-mate may be playing even better basketball right now. The 6-foot-9 Dekker has averaged 20.6 points per game in this tournament, and scored a career-high against North Carolina (23), only to follow it up with another career-high against Arizona (27). He also hit the biggest shot of the night against Kentucky Saturday, knocking down a step-back 3-pointer to give his team a three-point lead with 1:44 to play.

I see no reason why Kaminsky and Dekker can’t have similar impacts against Duke, but can Wisconsin’s guards keep up with that of the Blue Devils? Tyus and Cook are very quick off the dribble, unlike Kentucky’s Harrison twins, and they can also consistently shoot it from distance. Gasser, Koenig and Jackson will have their hands full. But, if they can limit those two to subpar performances, the Badgers have a really good chance to cut down the nets as champions Monday night.

There will be great matchups up front between Okafor and Kaminsky, and Dekker and Winslow. And like he was against Kentucky, I think Hayes could be a huge difference maker in this game for Wisconsin. He’s that third scoring option the Badgers need if they’re going to beat a high-powered Duke team.

Wisconsin has only lost three games this season, one of which came in a 10-point defeat to Duke back in December. It was the Badgers’ first loss of the season, and now the Blue Devils have a chance to beat them one final time to finish out the year.

Krzyzewski will seek his fifth national title, as he’s making his ninth appearance, while Wisconsin will play in their first National Championship game since 1941.

 

My prediction: Duke 74, Wisconsin 71

 

Photo Cred (Cal Sports Media via AP/Si.com)

Josiah Turner

Josiah is the founder and editor-in-chief at Sideline Sports Report. He has written for ESPN.com and is currently a digital editor at the SEC Network. He has covered the Washington Redskins for FanSided, and he has also covered high school basketball for Rivals.com and the Mechanicsville Local newspaper. Josiah is from Chesapeake, Va., and a college graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University.

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