By Aaron Hampton
Saturday’s Final Four match-ups have come and gone, and the field of 68 has finally been whittled down to just two as Duke and Wisconsin square off to decide a national champion on Monday night. While certainly not the marquee match-up of Duke and Kentucky that most were clamoring for, Monday’s championship game promises to an exciting match-up between two of the best and most efficient teams college basketball has to offer this season. Look no further than the December clash between the teams in the Big 10/ACC Challenge for evidence of what Monday night promises to be.
That winter night saw Duke hand Wisconsin their first loss of the season 80-70 on the strength of a herculean effort by Tyus Jones, who went for 22 in that meeting. Both teams knew back then that there was a chance they could meet late in March when the stakes are much higher, whoever neither would have predicted an April rematch in the national championship, which poses an entirely unique perspective on this match-up.
“It’s the national championship game, so you can’t look at it as we’ve played them already,” spoke Jones. “Both teams have grown a lot.. They’re a better team than they were in December and I feel that we’re a better team as well,” he would go on to add.
The sentiment is the same for Badgers as well, who openly admit that they were not playing their best basketball in December, but will walk into Indianapolis on Monday just as battle-tested as their ACC counterparts.
“That was our first loss, so it was in a moment to where we’re like, we’ve been in those moments more now,” remarked Nigel Hayes after the Badgers stunned then-undefeated Kentucky. “We’ve been in games where we’ve been down. We’ve been in pressure environments against great teams, so it’s going to be exciting.”
But just how different are current iterations of Duke and Wisconsin? Back when both these teams met in December, the since dismissed Rasheed Sulamion was still a valuable contributor to the Blue Devils, and Traveon Jackson was still getting the starters share of minutes for the Badgers. So while some of the cast and their roles on each team may have change, What has remained constant is the efficient, cerebral, and ultimately unselfish way both teams go about their business on the court.
“Both offenses are geared to anybody stepping up. We both have very unselfish teams,” described Mike Krzyzewski, who will look to notch his fifth national championship on Monday night. “I think we’re both geared that if someone’s having a night, we’ll go to that guy.”
That equal opportunity approach has led to guys like Sam Dekker and Justise Winslow becoming household names outside of the shadows of names like Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor. Both have seen their stocks rise tremendously with their performances in the tournament, with Winslow averaging 15.1 points per game and a shade under 10 rebounds, and Dekker averaging 20.1 points per game and boasting late game heroics described as “phenomenal” by Mike Krzyzewski.
Curiously enough, when they played each other in December each underwhelmed by scoring only five points. While it certainly won’t be the determining factor in Monday’s game, whoever is closer to their current run of form than the model they displayed during the winter, that match-up should be a good barometer of which way the match swings.
All in all, Monday night’s championship game is shaping up to be one of the better title games in recent memory with so many plot lines to choose from. Two all-time great coaches matching wits against each other in Bo Ryan and Mike Krzyzewski, two of the games best big man battling it out against each other in Kaminsky and Okafor, and two teams who endured the gauntlet of March Madness and stand one win away from history.
“We both have earned it to get here. Their road and our road has been a difficult one,” said Coach K. After a brief pit stop in December, the road ends Monday night in Indianapolis.