INDIANAPOLIS—If we were to play “the wish game” that preoccupies BarlesCharkley in that Capital One commercial that has gotten more air time during the NCAA tournament than Mike Krzyzewski, a Duke-Kentucky final would rank right up there with grown-ups smelling like babies and every truck being a taco truck. Alas, that matchup wasn’t to be. But as Wildcat blue receded from this city following Wisconsin’s final-minutes execution of the hitherto unbeaten ’Cats on Saturday night—one wag in the Kentucky press corps described the exodus down I-65 as looking like “a mafia funeral”—another achievement was brewing, and it’s well worth keeping an eye on.
Wisconsin can’t go 40-0. But with a victory over Duke in tonight’s national championship game, the Badgers would carve out their own place in history by having negotiated the most rutted road ever to an NCAA title: defeats of a 16th seed, a No. 8, a No. 4, a No. 2 and two No. 1s. And like a certain Duke team of earlier vintage, the 1991 Blue Devils who took out UNLV in the national semifinals, Wisconsin will have refocused itself after the euphoria of a victory over an undefeated opponent to finish the job. That’s what Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill did in their 72-65 defeat of Kansas in ’91 for the first of Coach K's four national titles, even if all the public really remembers is that defeat of UNLV.
In Madison, hockey analogies still carry the day, and Badgers coach Bo Ryan has heard a particular one from many people back home, including his counterpart with the Wisconsin women’s hockey team, Mark Johnson, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s gold medal team. "I was reminded by I can’t tell you how many people that, after we beat Russia, we had to beat Finland,” Ryan said yesterday. “Most people think that Russia was the gold medal game. I think it was Finland, wasn’t it?"
It was indeed Finland. Consider athleticism and defensive intensity Duke’s answer to vodka and ligonberries.
As we look toward a final as evenly matched as Duke vs. Kansas two dozen years ago, here are a few items worth weighing:
• April Isn’t December. Duke beat Wisconsin 80-70 in Madison on Dec. 3, pinning on the Badgers the most emphatic of their three defeats. Do the forensics on that game, though, and the extenuating circumstances begin to pile up. Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon, who contributed 14 points in 21 minutes, has since been dismissed from the team. As for the Badgers, they had just stumbled back home from three games in the Bahamas. Forward Sam Dekker, hobbled by a bum ankle, scored only five points. And on Sunday forward Nigel Hayes didn’t have to dip into his trusty thesaurus to describe his own inadequacies that night. “I sucked,” he said. “Cut-and-dried sucked.”
So this isn’t the same Wisconsin team. And while you can argue that neither are these the same Blue Devils, Duke isn’t likely to shoot the way it did that night, 65.2% for the game and 71.4% in the second half. On Saturday against the Badgers, Kentucky—ruthless, remorseless Kentucky—went 1 for 8 over the final six and a half minutes, with three straight shot-clock violations after building a four-point lead. Cyborgs though they may be on offense, the Badgers have clawed back from second-half deficits in six of their eight postseason games by playing defense to match the moment.
• Big Men Rule. Guards usually emerge as kings of the Final Four, be it Hurley in 1992, or Arizona’s Miles Simon in 1997, or Michigan State’s Mateen Cleaves in 2000, or Maryland’s Juan Dixon in 2002, or Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier a year ago. Here the spotlight has swung to the nation’s two best post players, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, and their Sancho Panza forwards, Dekker and Justise Winslow, respectively. When the frontcourt is the focus, fouls—and officials’ discretion in calling them—tend to matter more. Wisconsin is fastidious about not committing silly ones. Indeed, the Badgers usually make more free throws than their opponents attempt, and against Kentucky seemed almost to prefer to concede two points near the basket than to risk having to sit Kaminsky or Dekker on the bench. The team to have a big man land in early foul trouble figures to find itself back on its heels.
• The X-Factor Factor. Of course a guard could easily wind up determining the outcome, especially if the result hangs in the balance during the final minute. Duke has the more explosive backcourt, with Tyus Jones having sprung for 22 points, six rebounds and four assists in that December meeting. Given both teams’ commitment to ball movement and spacing, any number of unlikely heroes could go all Donald Williams or Jeff Sheppard or Luke Hancock on us and inscribe his name into the record book as Most Outstanding Player. “Both offenses are geared toward anybody stepping up,” Krzyzewski says. “We both have very unselfish teams. So somebody could have a night. [And] if someone’s having a night, we’ll go to that guy.”
• Wisdom Counts. History tells us that fortune favors the more experienced team in a close game. Krzyzewski may have more Final Four victories than any coach other than John Wooden, but he won’t be playing any Duke possessions tonight. His four underclass starters will be, whereas eight of the Badgers’ top nine contributors are playing in their second straight Final Four. Yet that December Duke-Wisconsin game may leave us a further clue in this regard. “We weren’t nervous,” reports the Blue Devils’ Matt Jones, a sophomore guard. “Being such a young team, and that being our first true road game, to come out and play the way we did gave us a lot of confidence.”
Nonetheless, if Duke wins, Krzyzewski will have a lot to do with it. He’ll have likely coaxed big-stage moments from his young stars and extended a short bench. And he’ll have figured out how to throttle the nation’s most efficient offense, a team that scores almost 1.22 points on every possession.
If Wisconsin wins, Ryan’s fingerprints will show, but they’ll be less perceptible given all the poise he has nurtured in his players. That blithe spirit was most evident in Hayes, who showed up at tournament press conferences with a word chosen to stump the stenographer, and told of the jokes he drops at practice to get a laugh out of Ryan. “I’m already thinking of one I haven’t used yet,” he told reporters yesterday. “Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom? Because the ‘p’ is silent.
"It’s O.K. You guys can laugh. We’re all just having a good time here.”
Being loose correlates with playing well. Is the looser team the more outwardly relaxed one, or does an authentically carefree attitude come with youth? Tonight, look for the answer.