After a rather easy road to the final game, Duke are slight favorites to win a fifth NCAA Tournament under Mike Krzyzewski. Wisconsin and Bo Ryan have been consistent, but rarely great over the last 15 years. Their achievement this season and their performance in the first game of the Final Four suggests it’s different this time.
Everything that was said about Wisconsin’s rival in the previous game, Kentucky, is being said now about Duke. They have more talent. They have better athletes. They have more depth. Wisconsin heard all that about Kentucky, the undefeated team, the perfect team, maybe the best group ever assembled on a college squad. They listened, learned and executed perfectly, making the most of their advantages, those known and those people seem to miss out on.
Yes, Frank Kaminsky is almost impossible to guard and presents endless problems with his size and range. Sam Dekker gets better the more difficult and tense the situation is. Nigel Hayes has a way of finding points where they shouldn’t be. But Wisconsin defend every position well and they don’t turn the ball over. Not letting the other team run the floor makes for a very big advantage.
Despite having three pre-tournament titles, Wisconsin as a program was almost absentee from the national scene for over 50 years. They won the tournament in 1941, but had a 47-year wait between tournament appearances (1947 to 1994). They’ve made the tournament 17 seasons in a row including the last two Final Fours, but they certainly don’t have the pedigree Duke have, which is mostly down to one head coach.
It’d be wrong to say Duke’s basketball history began with Coach K. He was hired in 1980. Duke made the Final Four four times before his hiring, including reaching the 1978 final game. But since Krzyzewski took the helm at Durham, it’s been a completely different ride, and Duke have been the most successful and consistent program in the nation. They haven’t missed the tournament since 1995, they’ve gotten to 12 Final Fours, played in the championship game eight times and won the tournament four times.
And the current roster of players for Duke, a nice blend of freshmen (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones) and veterans (Quinn Cook, Matt Jones), wants to be part of that rich Duke history. As Cook has said more than once, they want to be the kind of group that coach K brags about in five, seven and ten years. They want to be champions; special, memorable, eternal.
Duke and Wisconsin have played this season in Madison, with Duke winning by 10 points. That was the first time Wisconsin lost this season, and they’ve lost only two more times since. Duke didn’t lose any game until January, a month in which they lost three times. They didn’t lose again until facing Notre Dame in the ACC tournament. Their road to the final has been much easier, with Gonzaga, Michigan State, Utah, San Diego State and Robert Morris in the way.
Wisconsin? They are another number seed, but they’ve faced the highest possible seed at every stage, beating Coastal Carolina, Oregon, North Carolina, Arizona and Kentucky. Duke is the third team out of the Carolinas they’re facing in this tournament (Chanticleers are out of South Carolina). Deserve is a misunderstood word, but there’s no doubt someone had a much more difficult path to the title game while another almost cruised to it.