NCAA FINAL FOUR: WHY THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP MET EVERY EXPECTATION
Very few predicted who would meet in what turned out to be one of the better National Championship games in recent memory. In fact only 4.9% of the millions who filled out Final Four brackets had Duke and Wisconsin meeting in the finals and what a great final game it was. The nation, including the media unquestionably rooted for a Duke/Kentucky in which by story line after story would pile up in the social media frenzy that has become in today’s world of sports coverage and everything else for that matter. Yes the story lines would be plentiful, but the game promised to be one of greatest ever. The Wisconsin Badgers had other plans however, knocking of a Kentucky team on the brink of history to secure a place in the final game that they had rightfully earned. Sure, a lot of people lost a lot of money on that outcome, but the college basketball purists and true fans were treated to a game for the ages.
The Wisconsin Badgers wanted nothing more than another shot at Kentucky after their one point loss to the Wildcats in last year’s tournament that ended their season when the stakes were as high as they had ever been. With virtually no turnover from last year to this year, the Badgers knew what they had, and were convince it was good enough to beat the number one ranked undefeated team from Lexington, KY. So a team packed with well coached upper classmen including National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky beating Kentucky came as a huge surprise to some, but it shouldn’t have. You have 18 year olds playing against 21 year olds on a neutral floor and people still thought the playing field was even. The truth is, though Wisconsin didn’t match up perfectly with every top team in the country, they matched up perfectly with Kentucky. These were two totally different teams, and as athletic as Kentucky was they didn’t have anyone that could play with Kaminsky without bringing a big away from the goal. The Trey Lyles Sam Dekker battle was won easily by Dekker who brought more experience and fundamentals to the court. These two mismatches were simply a product of exceptional coaching by Bo Ryan, and experience in big games which was able to offset the overwhelming athleticism of the Wild Cats. The end result broke the hearts of one of the most passionate fan bases in college sports and scorned those fans who wanted to lay witness to a 40-0 season.
The Duke Blue Devils who made quick work of Michigan State in the Semi Finals entered the game undoubtedly relieved that they didn’t have to play a Kentucky team where Duke would have been significantly undersized. It didn’t hurt that Duke had beaten Wisconsin by 10 points earlier in the season, giving the Blue Devils all the confidence they needed to secure a 5th National Championship in the Coach K era. Both teams were significantly different than when they first met as Wisconsin seemed to have maxed out the ceilings of each of their players. Duke started playing defense in January and like fine wine, got better with age. That age however was the biggest concern as the team boasted only 8 players on scholarship including 4 freshmen.
The game itself was back and forth for the entire first half as the teams went to the locker room tied at 31, the first time since 1988 there was a tie in the National Championship game at the half. Jahlil Okafor marginalized himself early in the 2nd half by picking up his 3rd foul forcing him to the bench. Fellow teammate and lottery pick Justice Winslow suffered the same fate forcing Duke to reshuffle their lineup. After building a 9 point lead in the 2nd half, and with the Duke Bigs in foul trouble, the Badgers seemed primed to seal the deal they made their goal at the start of the season. Over the next 10 minutes however, the Blue Devils on the strength of their guard play slowly chipped away at that deficit to even the score. Led by freshmen guards Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen the Blue Devils put the clamp down on Wisconsin and successfully shifted the momentum in their favor for the rest of the game. Both Winslow and Okafor entered the game and made timely baskets in the paint while drawing fouls resulting in more easy points. Wisconsin didn’t back down and made key baskets down the stretch to stay in it, but they also had some bad misses including a shot clock violation with 2:29 remaining.
At the end of the day Wisconsin simply had nothing left in the tank, showing the Kentucky game took a bit more out of them than the Michigan State game did to Duke. The freshmen contributions by Duke’s first year players have been unmatched in college basketball history. Freshmen combined for 60 points in the National Championship game which is a monstrous number if you consider that in Duke’s previous 4 National Championship games combined freshmen scored a total of 23 points. Enough can’t be said about the spark Allen provided off the bench and Duke Alum and boosters will be talking about that forever. The game itself will go down in history as one of the greatest ever, especially considering the two roads these teams took to get there.