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Duke Blue Devils (1 seed, South region)
Duke got to the free throw line a whopping 37 times, receiving outstanding efforts from Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow while shooting 52% from the floor to easily discard of Michigan State, 81-61, in the first national semifinal. The Blue Devils seem to have the perfect mix of young talent and veteran leadership required of a championship team. Just 40 minutes separate Coach K and company from adding the school’s fifth national title.
Big Man on Campus: Winslow was again spectacular for the Blue Devils Saturday night, recording team-highs (or tie) in points, rebounds, and steals. The fantastic freshman poured in 19 points on just seven shots as he continues to solidify assertions that he is one of the best young players in the country. An aspect of Winslow’s game that won’t appear in the final box score, however, was his ability to play through early foul trouble. He would’ve been forced to sit for a large part of the second half if he had picked up his third foul, but Winslow showed veteran savvy in his ability to stay on the court. He ended up being the Devils’ most effective scoring option.
X-Factor: One key aspect of Saturday night’s national semifinal win for Duke was its outstanding team defense. The Blue Devils held Michigan State to just 40-percent shooting from the floor for the game, but the Spartans shot just 8-of-27 in the final 20 minutes. Michigan State star Denzel Valentine poured in nine early points as his team jumped out to an quick lead, but Duke did an outstanding job of limiting the number of good looks the junior got down the stretch.
Stat of the Game: Consensus opinion was that the Spartans would have to shoot lights out from 3-point range and not turn the ball over to have a chance to beat the Devils. Michigan State did make seven out of 20 from distance, but the team compiled 14 turnovers to just 10 assists. That stat, paired with the fact that the Devils’ shot 21 more free throws than the Spartans, ultimately spelled doom for Tom Izzo and company.
Preview: With Saturday’s win, Duke advances to the NCAA Tournament championship game against Frank Kaminsky and the Wisconsin Badgers, the team that ended Kentucky’s perfect season. Wisconsin is a matchup nightmare, as the Badgers generally have five guys on the floor that can shoot 3-pointers at a reasonably successful rate. The Badgers and Blue Devils have met once before this season, an 80-70 Duke win on December 3 at the Kohl Center in Madison. A quick glance at the box score from the early December game reveals a few key figures that aren’t likely to occur again.
First, Duke shot a ridiculous 65-percent from the floor on December 3, including 7-of-12 from distance, numbers that aren’t likely to occur again on Monday night. Kentucky, with all its height and post prowess, shot a reasonable 48-percent from the floor Saturday night against Wisconsin, a far cry from the number the Devils posted in the team’s first meeting with Kaminsky and company.
Second, Sam Dekker, the junior forward that has all but carried Wisconsin through the NCAA tournament, scored just five points in that game. Through five NCAA tournament games, Dekker is averaging 20.6 points per game and isn’t likely to duplicate his December 3 line: just 2-of-5 from the floor.
But the “unrealistic numbers” from the teams’ earlier meeting works in the Devils’ favor, too. Wisconsin senior guard Traevon Jackson, who missed most of the season due to injury, scored 25 points in the first game against Duke. He hasn’t played more than 12 minutes or scored more than six points so far in three tournament games.
For the Devils to beat Wisconsin, two things must happen:
The Blue Devils and the Badgers are both playing their best basketball at the optimal time, and Monday night’s matchup should be an absolute thriller, as America’s two best college basketball conferences, the ACC and the Big Ten, are represented in the season’s final game in Indianapolis.
How Duke Reached The Final: Def. Robert Morris 85-56, Def. San Diego State 68-49, Def. Utah 63-57, Def. Gonzaga 66-52, Def. Michigan State 81-61