Wisconsin-Duke Prediction

Posted: 04/06/2015 by levcohen in NCAA

No matter what, the 2014-15 college basketball season will be known as Kentucky’s 38-0 start and failure in the Final Four. I don’t think that’s fair, because Kentucky shouldn’t be thought of as failures and because I think Wisconsin won that game more than the Wildcats lost it, but that’s the way it is. But that shouldn’t make you worry that the game tonight will be boring or anticlimactic. It’s a title game, and I think it’s going to be a fantastic one. It’s not as if the Badgers have a much easier game here than they did in the semifinals; it can be argued that Duke is the second best team in the country. In the tournament, they have been the most dominant. It’s offense against offense, with the teams claiming the best (Wisconsin — the best since Kenpom began charting games in 2002) and third best (Duke). So who’s going to win?

Has Duke been overlooked in this tournament? It’s a question I never thought I’d be asking, but the answer might be yes. This team has been absolutely destroying teams this tournament. Remember when I said their defense was inconsistent and sometimes not engaged? They’ve given up no more than 61 points in a tournament game and just 52 against Gonzaga, still the sixth ranked offense in the country. On average, Duke is outscoring teams 73-55 with only one single digit win. I’ve already talked about Justice Winslow, the breakout star (along with Sam Dekker, who he’ll be matched up against tonight) of the tournament. We all know that Jahlil Okafor is a dominating offensive force, consistently putting opposing big men in foul trouble and scoring more efficiently from the field than just about anybody. And when you have those two and a backcourt of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook, at least one of whom is seemingly always hot, the lack of depth I’ve been talking about is almost moot. Matt Jones hits some big shots and Amile Jefferson is a scrappy big man, but Duke goes as the big four go. Given that two will likely go top 10 and all four in the first round (and change) and that’s a pretty nice place to be.

If any team is going to send Duke back into a defensive funk, it’s this Wisconsin team. They are scary good offensively. They just shot 48% from the field, 41% from three, and 82% from the line against the best defensive team in the country. They’ll find a mismatch against any opponent and make them pay for it (even a team with a zillion future NBA players). If the opponent has a slow big man (like Okafor), Frank Kaminsky will have a field day. If the opposing wings are either slow or small (NOT Winslow), Sam Dekker is going to take over. Nigel Hayes has been quiet recently, but he’s explosive and hit two threes against both Arizona and Kentucky, the two best defensive teams in the country with the possible exception of a full-strength Virginia. Sophomore point guard Bronson Koenig turns the ball over .8 times per game, and that’s as a point guard. In 87 combined minutes, Koenig turned the ball over twice in games against North Carolina, Arizona, and Kentucky. He won’t be scared of the moment. And that’s the thing with this Wisconsin team. They will not quit, and they’ll make big plays when they have to. They’re only ranked 55th in defensive efficiency, but they forced Kentucky into an unheard of three consecutive shot clock violations (on a 35 second shot clock!) down the stretch. Dumb play-calling by Kentucky probably didn’t hurt (get the ball in to Karl-Anthony Towns!), but there’s something to be said for getting the key stop. This is the hero of the old-time, players stay all four years, school of thought. Kaminsky is a senior and Dekker is a junior, and the Badgers get clutch play after clutch play from prototypical senior leader Josh Gasser. If they’re leading with three minutes left and the ball, Wisconsin is going to win the game. The question is: after giving up 80 points at home to Duke back in December (I’m not talking about that game because the teams were so different), can the Badgers stop Okafor and the Blue Devils’ offense? My answer: no, but they’ll slow them down enough.

A few key matchups to keep an eye on: the most exciting one is Dekker and Winslow, the matchup between two players who are too good to be called second bananas. Dekker is bigger, but Winslow is (dare I say it) better. Okafor and Kaminsky will also be matched up against each other, and I don’t think either will be able to stop the other one defensively. They are both just too worried about getting into foul trouble to put forth a consistent defensive effort, at least until the second half. As for the guard play, I think Duke’s starters have the advantage, which makes it imperative for the Badgers to get Cook and/or Jones tired or into foul trouble. Both teams, though, will rely heavily on their starting lineups, neither of which has much of a weak link (Matt Jones may test that theory, though). The winner will be the team who can contain the opposing big man better and gets hotter from beyond the arc. If only because I’ve been calling them the better team all year, I’ll take Wisconsin in a nail-biter. Badgers win 76-74.

 

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