9:18 PM EST, CBS – Line: Pick ’em
After three weeks of madness, the 2015 NCAA Men’s Tournament comes to it’s conclusion at Lucas Oil Field as the Wisconsin Badgers and the Duke Blue Devils face off for a National Championship. A year after suffering a surprise upset in the opening round of the tourney at the hands of Mercer, Duke (34-4, 15-3 in ACC) is back in a familiar place, as Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski is on the verge of winning his fifth National Championship, his first since 2010. Of course there is a precedent for Coach K and his charges hoisting a National Title in Indianapolis; the city served as the backdrop for two of his National Championships (1992 and 2010). Unlike those particular teams of years past, this incarnation of the Blue Devils is one of the youngest to ever make it to this point of the Big Dance. But make no mistake, these kids have matured exponentially as the season as progressed, and though it sounds hyperbolic it remains true; at this juncture, they simply aren’t Freshmen anymore. Depth and experience were the primary concerns entering the tourney, but neither have really proven to be much of an issue at any point of their tournament run. Their first two contests of the proved to be little more than a tune-up as Duke manhandled both Robert Morris and San Diego State by a combined forty-eight points. Fifth-seeded Utah would give Krzyzewski’s kids their stiffest test thus far, as the top-seeded Devils eventually outlasted the Utes earning a 63-57 victory. Defensively, the South Region’s No. One Seed smothered their opponent defensively, relegating them to a mere 35.0% shooting from the field, including 4-of-16 from beyond the arc (25.0%). Surprisingly, the region’s Two Seed Gonzaga, didn’t provide the same competition, as Duke puled away with ease in the Second Half, outscoring the Bulldogs 35-26 over the final twenty minutes of play, propelling Coach K to his twelfth Final Four appearance. However, the biggest surprise was how they absolutely dismantled Michigan State in the National Semifinal; though they defeated the Spartans earlier in the season (81-71), the Blue Devils were in rare form this past Saturday Night, running Tom Izzo’s kids out of the arena in an 81-61 drubbing. Duke shot a blistering 52.0% from the field, with all but two of their field goals coming in the paint where they met very little resistance, netting twenty-four of their forty attempts (60.0%). They also owned quite the advantage from the charity stripe, where they calmly went 27-of-37 from the line (73.0%), outscoring Michigan State by a whopping seventeen points in that regard. The triumvirate of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook accounted for fifty-four of their team’s eighty-one points, seventeen of their twenty-seven free-throws, and another seventeen of their thirty-six rebounds.
And even though Okafor has drawn the majority of the praise from around the country, and is expected to be taken within the first two picks of the NBA Draft, it has been the emergence of Winslow that has served as the catalyst to the Devils’ run to the Final. With Junior Guard Rasheed Sulaimon’s dismissal back in late January, the versatile Frosh was injected into the starting lineup, and has elevated the play of the rest of the unit. At 6-6, Winslow has provided Krzyzewski with the luxury of employing at multiple positions, but most frequently as a Stretch Four who can create spacing for his more heralded teammate to operate in the paint. In conference play, Winslow averaged 13.3 points per game on 49.7% shooting from the field, including 41.5% from three, along with 6.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.4 steals with a PER of 21.6. He’s been even better in the NCAA Tournament, looking like the best player on the floor in a number of Duke’s postseason outings thus far; through the first five games of the tourney, the Forward has averaged 15.0 points on 54.3% shooting, 9.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.6 steals. Most impressive all though has been the dramatic improvement in his three-point shooting, which has been off the charts over the past three weeks; Winslow has knocked down seven of his twelve attempts from beyond the arc (58.3%), further stretching defenses and creating open lanes for his companions to attack the rim. However, as much as he’s improved their play offensively, it’s the team’s steep rise on the defensive end of the court that has put them in this position. Duke has been simply dominant on defense during the Big Dance, holding each of their opponents to 44.0% shooting or lower. Of their five opponents, only Michigan State managed to net over 31.6% of their attempts from beyond the arc, and none of that group making much of a dent from the charity stripe, where Coach K’s kids simply haven’t sent them. In the NCAA Tournament, Duke has put their opponents on the free-throw line a mere fifty-five times, of which they’ve made just thirty-eight (69.1%), opposed to the 63-of-82 (76.8%) they shot themselves over the last three games alone. In fact, the denizens of Durham attempted thirty-seven freebies in their demolition of Michigan State in the National Semifinal. This will be important against the Badgers, whom when they met earlier in the season shot 17-of-21 (81.0%) from the free-throw line while the visiting Blue Devils made 13-of-18 (72.2%). That night in Madison, Duke shot a ridiculous 65.2% from the floor, with Tyus Jones leading the team with twenty-two points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field (63.6%), along with six rebounds and four assists. The now dismissed Sulaimon scored fourteen off the bench, while Okafor posted totals of thirteen points and six rebounds in his showdown with Kaminsky. The big man was limited to twenty-seven minutes of action that night, as he was saddled with four personal fouls. Only eight Devils saw playing time in that contest, and one of them is no longer on the team, so Okafor must find a way to stay on the court, otherwise Duke will be woefully undersized against the bigger Badgers.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin (36-3, 16-2 in Big Ten) is coming off easily the most impressive performance of the NCAA Tournament, if not the entire 2014-2015 campaign, knocking off the previously unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats in the National Semifinal. Indeed, the Badgers were a prohibitive underdog against the Wildcats, but executed a flawless gameplan, outplaying their heavily favored opponent in virtually every aspect of the 71-64 victory. With the game nodded at 36-36 at Halftime, Bo Ryan’s charges outscored Kentucky 35-28 over the final twenty minutes, answering every run that John Calipari’s outfit was able to muster. Against historically one of the best defenses ever assembled, the Big Ten Champions shot a solid 47.9% from the field, including 7-of-17 from beyond the arc (41.2%), yet a staggering 51.6% from inside the three-point line, proving that it actually is possible for someone to shoot over the ‘Cats’ impressive length. They also managed to outwork the opposition on the glass, owning a 30-22 advantage on the boards, pulling down nine offensive rebounds to boot. Their aggressiveness was clearly noted by the officials, who awarded them with yet another advantage from the free-throw line, where they made the most of their opportunities, netting a stellar eighteen of their twenty-two attempts (81.8%), outscoring Kentucky their fellow No. One Seed by nine points in that regard. In many ways, Ryan’s kids played the perfect game, much in the same way that Villanova did back in 1985 against the dynastic Georgetown Hoyas. Wooden Award winner Frank Kaminsky proved to be a matchup nightmare for Calipari’s platoon of Lottery Picks in the paint, scoring a game-high twenty points on 7-of-11 shooting (63.6%) to go along with eleven rebounds, two assists, and a pair of blocks. And as much as the seven-footer frustrated Karl Anthony-Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein offensively, he more than held his own defensively, helping to limit the Wildcats’ vaunted frontcourt to 46.9% shooting in the paint. Sam Dekker added another sixteen points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field (66.6%), including a pair of huge threes in the second half, while Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig totaled a dozen points apiece sending Wisconsin to their first National Championship Game since 1941, where the program enjoyed their only NCAA National Championship.
Of the two participants in tonight’s National Final, Wisconsin has easily traversed the more difficult road, and that’s not just because they faced Kentucky. After hammering Coastal Carolina in the Round of 64 (86-72), the Badgers were tested by each of their remaining opponents; from Oregon in the Round of 32 (72-65), to escaping North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen (79-72), and their 85-78 triumph over Arizona in the Regional Final for the second year in a row, Ryan’s outfit is as battle-tested as any to compete in the National championship Game. In those five victories, they have followed a fairly consistent formula on the offensive end, slowing the game down to a crawl where they have ran their sets to near perfection. Wisconsin has committed just thirty-five turnovers since the Tournament Opener, while dishing out forty-five assists en route to shooting 48.0% from the field. But where these guys have really done their dirt is at the charity stripe, where Ryan’s charges have developed a penchant for getting to the line; thus far, they have neutralized high-octane offenses by drawing fouls, evidenced by their eighty-two free-throws over the past four games, making them at a sound 78.1% per attempt. in fact, the Badgers outscored their opponents by twenty-eight points from the line alone, which is good for a seven-point differential per outing. Kaminsky has been outstanding in the Tournament, averaging 22.2 points on 53.6% shooting from the field, including a red-hot 6-of-11 from beyond the arc (54.5%), along with 8.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 0.8 blocks over the last five games. His unconventional shooting prowess has consistently forced opposing Centers to follow him out towards the perimeter, while his teammates have enjoyed the healthy spacing. One such Badger who has improved dramatically over the past few weeks has been Sam Dekker, who like Winslow for Duke, has proven to be the x-factor in his team’s run towards a National Championship. The Junior Forward has been an excellent two-way player for Ryan, helping to provide balance on the perimeter for Kaminsky when the Senior operates in the paint. Dekker has averaged a stellar 20.6 points on a stunning 61.3% shooting from the field in the tourney, including 15-of-30 from downtown (50.0%), along with 5.0 rebounds, and 1.0 assist per game. The inside/outside combination of the two has been devastating to the opposition, for when the big man has stepped out to the perimeter, his 6-9 teammate has netted twenty-three of his thirty-two attempts from inside the three-point arc (71.9%). These two must continue to carry over their excellent performance against Kentucky to tonight’s matchup, for they’ll be matching up with two of the Devils’ biggest guns in Okafor and Winslow. When these teams met back on December 3rd, both players struggled to find open looks; Kaminsky scored seventeen points, but did so on 5-of-12 shooting from the field (41.7%), including just 3-of-8 in the paint (37.5%), while Dekker was largely ineffective with just five points on 2-of-5 shooting (40.0%) in the 80-70 defeat. As a team, the Badgers really struggled to work the ball into the paint against Duke’s pressure, shooting a mere 39.4% from inside the three-point line, even with Okafor subject to foul trouble.