Few experts expected the Dec. 3 matchup between the Wisconsin Badgers and Duke Blue Devils in Madison was going to serve as a preview of the national title game. The Blue Devils and head coach Mike Krzyzewski wound up beating the Badgers, 80-70, behind the impressive display of freshman point guard Tyus Jones.
For the Badgers (36-3, 16-2), it could have been a devastating out-of-conference loss that trickled into Big Ten play. But they would lose only two more times in the regular season, and eventually morphed into one of the top teams in the country to make one of the toughest runs in the NCAA tournament’s history.
"It has been really tough, but we have been prepared for that going through a grueling Big Ten season," senior guard Josh Gasser said to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "The Big Ten prepares you for stuff like this. You play every style of teams — big teams, fast teams, physical teams — and you have to do the little things if you want to win the Big Ten and we can translate that to big games.
"To be able to beat North Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky and now have a chance at Duke, that is pretty remarkable for a school that is not considered a powerhouse....
"We deserve it. We play really hard, and we prepare well. We have great coaches and players, and we just have to try and get one more."
Rising to the occasion time and again, the No. 1 Badgers managed to upend previously undefeated Kentucky, 71-64, to set up Monday night’s national championship against the storied No. 1 Blue Devils (34-4, 15-3) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Juxtaposed, the two programs have very little in common in terms of success. Wisconsin is seeking just the second national title in school history, and first since 1941. Badgers head coach Bo Ryan enters the first title game of his career at the Division I level, but was the first coach in the program’s history to reach consecutive Final Fours.
On the other side are Duke and Krzyzewski, who together have claimed four national titles and now 16 Final Four appearances. The Blue Devils will play in their first championship since 2010, when they topped Butler.
Parsing the rosters, the Blue Devils and Badgers have even less in common. Krzyzewski takes his talented batch of freshmen led by Jones, big man Jahlil Okafor and swingman Justise Winslow, with little coming off the bench, against Ryan’s experienced mix of upperclassmen, including Player of the Year winner and versatile senior big man Frank Kaminsky.
Based off their success against the once-considered invincible Kentucky Wildcats, the Badgers could be primed for one more victory.
The seven-foot Kaminsky had games highs (20 points and 11 rebounds) against Kentucky's formidable big men, to earn his second double-double of the tournament and 13th overall this season.
Beside Kaminsky on the Badgers stacked front line are junior forward Sam Dekker and sophomore forward Nigel Hayes. Dekker totaled 16 points and three rebounds, while going 2-for-3 from three-point range against Kentucky, upping his accuracy from deep in the tournament to 15-for-30. Hayes chipped in 12 points and five rebounds versus Kentucky’s equally loaded front court.
Duke will counter with Jones, who notched 22 points against Wisconsin their regular season meeting, and Okafor and Winslow coming off 18 and 19-point nights, respectively, in the 81-61 blowout victory over Michigan State in the semifinals.
Senior guard Quinn Cook also contributed 17 points, and freshman guard Grayson Allen notched a tournament-high nine points and five rebounds, with both providing more depth than the Blue Devils have played with for much of the season.
The key matchups will be down low, but guard play could be crucial for both sides. How Cook, Allen, Jones and sophomore guard Matt Jones deal with Wisconsin’s Gasser, sophomore Bronson Koenig, senior Traevon Jackson will likely decide the game’s tempo. The Badgers often look to control the pace with Kaminsky backing down opponents, and freeing up space for Dekker to knock down three-point shots, but the Blue Devils can get out and run early and often with Tyus Jones looking to push the ball.
Start Time: 9:18 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Live Online: A free live stream is available at March Madness Live here
Betting Odds: Wisconsin -1
Over/Under: 139 points
Prediction: Duke over Wisconsin, 73-69