There will be no Kentucky vs. Duke matchup for the ages. No Towns vs. Okafor; no Coach K vs. Coach Cal; no battle of the bluebloods.
But, for all the anticipation leading up to the potential Duke/Kentucky matchup, Wisconsin is more than deserving of the opportunity to fight for a national championship. In today’s “one-and-done” era that even Krzyzewski has succumb to, how refreshing is it that a team full of seniors promoting a true “team” atmosphere is also really damn good? Like, you may not understand just how good they are. They don’t turn the ball over – 7.4 per/game leads the nation for the fewest by over a full turnover. In a stark juxtaposition to both today’s college basketball and the typical Bo Ryan teams, this team is truly gifted offensively. In adjusted offensive efficiency, the Badgers rank first, with a staggering 128.5 points per 100 possessions. And when they need stops – like down the stretch against Kentucky when they were down four – they fight and claw to get those stops. They’re not a run-of-the-mill modern age college basketball team, but if you caught one second of the Kentucky game, you know the Wisconsin win was no fluke, nor was it a Kentucky collapse. If Kentucky is the best college basketball in the last 10 years, Wisconsin might be the fifth best team in that span.
It takes two to tangle, and Duke is undoubtedly capable of competing with and beating Wisconsin. They can score with anyone – led by the Freshman duo of Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow – but what was so impressive about the Michigan State beatdown was the full team defensive effort. Winslow’s development has transcended Duke’s team defense and Grayson Allen provides energy off the bench that they have sorely missed all year. They’re rounding into form at the right time of the year; it’s almost getting to the point where I enjoy watching Duke play. Almost. Then Marshall Plumlee comes on to the court and reminds me just how fun it is to hate Duke and everything it stands for. For the record, I’m all-in on the “I hate the Plumlee Family” 30 for 30, but more on him (and them) later…
In this diary, I’ll be writing in real-time as the game goes on, and updating as we go on through the night. Sit back, relax, and just remember as you’re watching these two great teams: college basketball is thoroughly unwatchable and eternally broken!
Pregame: Tracy Wolfson adds a meaningless quote from Bo Ryan about how badly he wants to win. Shockingly, Ryan doesn’t become the first coach to admit to the sideline reporter: “Yeah, screw the players, I want this win for my legacy.” I’m not giving up on old Bo just yet. UPDATE: I was smart not to give up on the guy, as he rewards my faith with the ignorant “rent-a-player” comment. Salty?
1st Half 20:00 – Duke wins the tip, and we’re off. Have to say I’m surprised there has been no mention of Kentucky yet. Of note: Winslow starts out on Dekker, leaving Hayes with a mismatch. Duke is switching everything, which is exactly what burned Kentucky in the last game. If Wisconsin can find their mismatches like they did with Booker against Kentucky, they will score at will.
1st Half 15:36 – Woooo. Take a breath, everyone. The players look a bit skittish, almost like they are teenagers playing in front of millions of people. Duke desperately wants to push the tempo, while Wisconsin wants to settle the ball and play in the halfcourt (and rightfully so, they’re the best halfcourt offense in college basketball). Jahlil’s foul could loom large in the coming minutes if Wisconsin can get him a second foul. Kaminsky is playing quite a bit on the perimeter in order to extract Okafor from the paint, but he might want to get Okafor on the block and force him into that second foul.
1st half 15:36 – Marshall Plumlee enters the game and immediately sets three ball screens and then proceeds to turn it over. Plumlee is your brutal reminder that this Duke team is one of thinnest in the last decade. He has no discernible basketball skills – he cannot catch, he cannot dribble, he cannot shoot – yet Duke University still offers him a scholarship to play basketball because of his last name. This tweet might have been the most relevant tweet I have seen all weekend:
Wait, wait, no definitely this:
1st Half 13:58: Plumlee Ball-Screen Counter: 8. IN TWO POSSESSIONS. NO, REALLY, I COUNTED. Unfortunately, he comes out.
1st Half 11:15: Duke has stepped up their defense to a crazy level and leads 13-12. To think that just months ago, this team was actually a bad halfcourt defense. Grayson Allen’s energy brings an element off the bench that Duke lacked earlier this season. Meanwhile, Wisconsin needs to start challenging Okafor with Kaminsky on the block. It’s important to note that Duke has gained this lead with a bigger lineup featuring Jefferson/Winslow/Okafor. They’ve matched Wisconsin’s size and it’s giving the Badgers fits. Still, I think this game is first to 80.
1st Half 9:14: We have a full-on #RefShow. Winslow slides in to take a charge but is very emphatically called for a block after a necessary five-second referee delay. Be ready for a questionable game-deciding charge call late in the game, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. As you know, we’re all watching for the refs. Meanwhile, Duke is jacked up right now; Quinn Cook dives for a ball already 10 feet out of bounds. Wisconsin is out of sorts offensively, but is gifted enough to only be down four (21-17).
1st Half 7:14: Winslow with two fouls. Amile Jefferson is going to have to play some big minutes here…
1st Half 4:47: A Kaminsky strip of Okafor and all of a sudden a previously-flat Wisconsin leads. Okafor heads to the bench, and you know what that means! Before I can even look up to see if coach K puts him in, Plumlee sets three more ball screens. Wisconsin has started making shots and K needs a timeout. This game is everything we all (minus John Calipari) could have asked for in a national championship. Wisconsin leads 28-27.
1st Half 1:43: Wisconsin leads by two at the under-four timeout, but more importantly… Plumlee Ball-Screen Counter: 13. Currently checking the record book because this has to be some sort of record.
We’re tied at 31 at half and the scoreboard is certainly reflective of the way both teams are playing. We’re in for a great second half. Meanwhile, all the expert analysis we get is from Seth Davis, saying, “Go, Frank, go.” These guys actually get paid to say that. Like, actual money.
2nd Half 18:32: Wisconsin bursts out to a 38-33 lead and Duke takes a TO. Kaminsky gave a nice pump fake and passed out for a three, then came back down and finished with a lay-up on the next possession. He’s showing Okafor who the best player in the country is right now, and it sure seems like Duke will have to outscore Wisconsin as opposed to shutting them down if they want to win.
2nd Half 15:46: Dekker stumbles to the bench and looks very out of sorts in this game. His draft stock has soared this tournament, but Winslow has really limited him tonight. Meanwhile, Wisconsin leads by four and Okafor remains on the court with three fouls. As we head down the stretch, it’s important to note that Coach K really has no choice when it comes to taking Okafor out; Duke only goes eight deep and one of those eight is Marshall Plumlee.
2nd Half 13:17: Koenig jumper, Kaminsky lay-in and Wisconsin leads by nine. K calls timeout. CBS shoots to a Wisconsin bar. It’s almost like they’re trying to jinx this win. Grayson Allen three and steal and the jinx is in.
2nd Half 12:10: GRAYSON F’ING ALLEN IS DOING ALL OF THE THINGS (specifically scoring Duke’s last eight points and single-handedly keeping them afloat. Who ever said Duke wasn’t deep?). We’re not quite at Spike Albrecht-level but we’re getting dangerously close.
2nd Half 10:42: Worried that a great basketball game might actually be breaking out, the refs restore order by heading to the monitor to check something completely useless. Surprisingly they find nothing. Sigh. Meanwhile, Jahlil picks up a fourth foul and heads to the bench. Unfortunately, Krzyzewski realizes this game actually matters and puts in Jefferson instead of Plumlee.
2nd Half 7:29: Tyus Jones flops his way into the under-eight timeout. For all the unwarranted talk about the dramatic downfall of college basketball, maybe what’s unappealing about the game is the refereeing. Two talented and fundamentally sound teams are playing for the right to call themselves National Champions and I am already resigned to the fact that a contentious call is going to heavily influence who wins. Here’s an idea: let the kids play basketball.
2nd Half 4:06: Tyus Jones for three, Duke by one. Anyone who ever thought this game would be diminished by not having Kentucky can shut up now. Jahlil remains on the bench, but for how long?
2nd Half 3:17: Answer: not long. Okafor and-1 and Duke creeps to a three point lead. A shot-clock violation and an Okafor lay-in gives Duke a five-point lead. Things are getting iffy for the Badgers.
2nd Half 1:51: A MASSIVE review gives Duke the ball back, AFTER the entire country sees Winslow’s finger move on the ball. Who could have seen that questionable call coming?!?!
2nd Half 1:15: Tyus Jones nails a three and Kaminsky follows it up on the other end with a three of his own. If Wisconsin doesn’t get a stop on the next possession, Duke is the National Champion. It’s that simple.
2nd Half 1:00: Quick stop and a score for Wisconsin, and all of a sudden…
Duke wins, America loses.
(More importantly, the Plumlee Ball-Screen Counter finished at 17 in nine minutes)