The college basketball season is about to end. It’s been a long journey to this point, and one that appears to be coinciding with a number of great games. We have been fortunate during this NCAA Tournament, as well as the other three postseason tournaments.
The season has seen a coach top 1,000 career wins. It has seen three double-digit seeds win by one point on the same day in the NCAA Tournament. It has seen three teams that play in the Champions Classic reach the Final Four. It has seen a team flirt with an undefeated season.
There is so much more. It’s all down to one game now.
Duke and Wisconsin played each other in Madison earlier this season as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Blue Devils won that game 80-70 in relatively convincing fashion, one of three big road wins this season that established how much of a national title contender this team would be (they also won at Louisville and Virginia, the latter being Virginia’s first loss of the season). Duke shot 65.2 percent from the field in that game, including 71.4 percent in the second half. The 80 points is the most the Badgers have surrendered in a game this season.
It’s a few months later, however, so that game can only tell us so much about both teams. Wisconsin is 29-2 since then, while Duke is 26-4. Duke has since dismissed Rasheed Sulaimon from the team, while Wisconsin went 19 games without Traevon Jackson after he got hurt at Rutgers – a game they lost with Frank Kaminsky out due to a concussion. Bronson Koenig grew while he moved into the starting lineup and assumed a bigger role, and he’s more ready for a game like this now than he was in December.
If history is a guide, the Blue Devils are in good shape: the last three times the national championship game was a rematch of teams that met in the regular season, the team that won the regular season meeting also won the big game. In case you’re wondering, those games came in 2012, 2011 and 2009.
If you look at numbers, you have reason to believe Duke has the upper hand. In the NCAA Tournament, Duke is holding opponents to 55 points per game on 37.4 percent shooting, while at the offensive end they are shooting 50.4 percent from the field, including just under 40 percent from deep. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is allowing opponents to shoot 48.1 percent from the field, including almost 51 percent from long range – numbers you don’t expect given the reputation of Bo Ryan-coached teams. At the offensive end, they are shooting 49.4 percent, including 41.5 percent from deep.
Then there’s what each team had to do on Saturday night. Duke blew out Michigan State, while Wisconsin had to use everything they had to beat Kentucky. They beat a Wildcats team that was in pursuit of perfection, having to rally and finish the game on a 15-4 run. And as noted in this space on Sunday, Ryan has to get his team off the high of beating Kentucky so they can focus on one more game. It’s something Mike Krzyzewski had to do 24 years ago.
The thinking here is that the Badgers will do that and make this a ballgame. This is a matchup that could have been envisioned before the season, although most figured Kentucky would be here given their personnel. Duke and Wisconsin were near the top of most preseason rankings, they were the signature matchup of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and were both No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s a heavyweight battle, and should be a good game. This NCAA Tournament deserves that much after what we have already been treated to.
Avery Johnson is the new head coach at Alabama, succeeding Anthony Grant. The 50-year-old former NBA point guard has twice been a head coach in the NBA, spending three years with the Dallas Mavericks and two years with the Brooklyn Nets, winning NBA Coach of the Year honors in 2006.
The national championship game tips at about 9:18 p.m. Eastern. Let’s hope it’s as good as many of the games we’ve seen the last couple of weeks.