With Wisconsin-Duke final, NCAA hoops can forget about its problems for a night
On Monday night, the 2014-15 college basketball season will culminate in an exceptionally entertaining matchup between two premier offensive teams. Which seems completely disconnected from all those dreadful 52-47 games that consumed the sport back in January and February.
Wisconsin vs. Duke is more than just a matchup of two No. 1 tourney seeds (the first in a title game since 2008) or a clash of the nation’s two best players, Badgers center Frank Kaminsky and Blue Devils counterpart Jahlil Okafor. In one corner is a Wisconsin team that holds the modern record for offensive efficiency in a season, whose starters all seem to effortlessly toggle between dazzling post-ups and dagger 3s. In the other is a Duke team that would excel in any era, what with a dominant big (Okafor), an elite point guard (Tyus Jones) and a fearless scorer of a swing man (Justise Winslow).
"Both offenses are geared to anybody stepping up," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Sunday. "I think we’re both geared that if someone’s having a night, we’ll go to that guy, or these guys inherently will go to that guy instead of, ‘Oh, it’s my turn.’ In other words, both teams share the spotlight really well."
The spotlight will shine particularly bright Monday night. While it’s not the dreamy Kentucky-Duke showdown that much of the country craved, it’s still the rare tourney where the two best teams will actually meet in the title game.
It’s the perfect antidote to all the larger doom-and-gloom scoring trends that hovered over an often "unwatchable" regular season. And it’s the zenith to what has arguably been the most riveting NCAA tournament in two decades.
Saturday’s epic Wisconsin-Kentucky semifinal will long be remembered as the night the Badgers dashed the Wildcats’ undefeated season, but both Kentucky’s Elite Eight thriller against Notre Dame and Wisconsin’s second-half masterpiece against Arizona were equally compelling. Along the way, Kaminsky (averaging 22.2 points in five tourney games) and Sam Dekker (20.6) have dazzled the millions of TV viewers whose college basketball "season" began March 19.
"Coming into the year, I thought (Wisconsin) would be the best team in the country, and pretty much they have been," Krzyzewski said Sunday. "It’s just that Kentucky’s undefeated performance overshadowed, I think, just how good Wisconsin has been, until (Saturday) night where there were no shadows anymore."
Meanwhile, Duke’s sizzling tourney run to date, in which it’s won four of its five games by at least 14 points, has served NBA fans a nice national welcome for future top five picks Okafor (16.0 ppg) and Winslow (15.0).
"We have four freshmen that are really good and … Quinn [Cook] has played as well as any guard in the country," said Duke assistant Jeff Capel. "We felt earlier this year we had a chance to have a special season, and we’ve had one."
To be clear, even if Duke and Wisconsin deliver an all-time classic Monday night, college basketball’s bigger issues won’t magically wash away. Scoring and pace of play have plummeted to lows not seen since the 1940s. The NCAA is concerned enough that it experimented with a 30-second shot clock during this year’s NIT and has invited media to a "State of the Game" roundtable with national officials Monday.
Duke and Wisconsin are outliers, the best of the best, which affords Badgers coach Bo Ryan the luxury of mocking the sport’s critics.
"Scoring is down one 3-point basket a game (from last season)," Ryan said Sunday. "If people want to get nervous, break out, have problems with that, I feel sorry for them."
Ryan is extra sensitive because he and his own program got stereotyped at times over the past decade for playing an ugly brand of basketball, mostly because they were so good defensively. This season’s team averages a staggering 1.285 points per possession, the highest number since Ken Pomeroy began tracking the stat in 2002. In fact it’s actually gone up after playing two of Pomeroy’s top-three-rated defenses, Arizona’s and Kentucky’s.
It’s no secret why Wisconsin suddenly got so good at putting up points. It has two incredibly effective scorers that stand 7 feet (Kaminsky) and 6-9 (Dekker) and surrounds them with three more big and versatile starters in 6-8 forward Nigel Hayes and 6-4 guards Bronson Koenig and Josh Gasser, all of whom have played together for so long they know exactly where to find them.
"The fact they can post five guys and the fact they have five ball-handlers on court at one time really isn’t like any team I’ve played against or we have faced," said Duke assistant Jon Scheyer, one of the stars of Krzyzewski’s last title team in 2010.
These Blue Devils, for their part, could not seem farther removed from their recent tourney predecessors that bowed out to Lehigh (2012) and Mercer (2014). There’s a relatively simple explanation. "We have better players," said Capel. The best of those players won’t wind up being four-year staples like past Duke greats Christian Laettner, Grant Hill or J.J. Redick, but in terms of pure talent, it’s absolutely one of the best teams of Krzyzewski’s 35-year tenure.
Next season, after Cook graduates and Okafor, Winslow and possibly Jones turn pro, Duke may well be one of those teams struggling to score 60 points in a given night, so just enjoy this moment.
Amid all the criticism, particularly this season, college basketball diehards have become a bit like soccer or hockey fans — overly touchy and defensive whenever anyone dares suggest there’s anything wrong with their favorite sport. Wisconsin’s coach, for one, falls squarely in that camp.
"It’s not like we’re not trying to score," said Ryan. "People can talk about scoring being down. It really doesn’t resonate with myself because we know what we’re trying to do, we know what the other team is trying to keep us from doing, and also we know what we’re trying to keep them from doing. How everybody else interprets it, go at it."
But many others in his industry — from the man who oversees the NCAA tournament (Dan Gavitt) to the head of the rules committee (Rick Byrd) to prominent TV analysts (Jay Bilas) and coaches (Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo) — have expressed genuine concern over what many view as a "crisis." With college football expanding both in popularity and in the length of its season and with an ever-increasing gap in quality of play between NBA and college basketball, the latter is increasingly losing relevance between November and early March.
But March Madness remains as popular as ever, with this year’s in particular setting numerous TV records. Maybe Monday night’s game, pitting two incredibly talented teams with undeniably entertaining styles, is just what the sport needs.
More realistically, Kaminsky, Dekker, Okafor, Winslow and nearly the entire Kentucky team will go off to the NBA, and the whole cycle will start all over again next season.
College basketball is not as great as it once was. Only the zealots would argue otherwise. But it’s still capable of rising up and delivering a classic postseason. One more thriller Monday night would ensure this one’s legacy.