Wednesday's climax to the 16th ACC/Big Ten Challenge is a big night in Madison. ESPN will be broadcasting live from the Kohl Center floor before and after the game, the most expensive ticket this week at almost $150 a pop just to get in the door.
After last year's trip to the Final Four, the moment won't be too big for the second-ranked Badgers. They continue to work as one cohesive, highly-efficient unit, led by senior center Frank Kaminsky.
Wisconsin (7-0) boasts the second-most efficient offense in the land, but the current challenge is No. 4 Duke (7-0), which happens to have the top offense in college basketball. This year another freshman phenom and likely top pick in next summer's NBA draft, center Jahlil Okafor, is the headliner for Mike Krzyzewski's team.
Okafor is scary good, but he isn't what scares me the most. Nor does the top-flight collection of athletes or Coach K's coaching acumen. No, what frightens me about Wisconsin facing this Duke team is that many of things the Badgers do best, the Blue Devils do better. It's not just the offense's overall efficiency either.
Traditionally, Wisconsin is always one of the top teams in the nation at taking care of the ball. Following a flurry of turnovers in their Battle 4 Atlantis run, the Badgers are still among the best around with a 14.7 percent turnover rate (10th-best according to KenPom.com). Yet the Blue Devils are a rung more stingy at 13.6. I wouldn't expect the usual advantage in that area, especially since the Duke defense is also much more capable of creating turnovers than Wisconsin.
Another way Duke is using a similar blueprint to Wisconsin is how it defends the perimeter. Bo Ryan likes to limit shots from three-point land and wants to contest them when they are attempted. Wisconsin does well in both cases, holding foes to 28.8 percent shooting on a low number of three-point attempts (30.2 percent of all attempts). But again, Duke has out-Badgered opponents, forcing them into a ridiculously low 23.6 percent shooting on the 26.6 percent of shots that come from long-range.
Similarly, on offense, the Blue Devils are solidifying their advantage but hitting three-pointers at a 38.7 percent clip. The Badgers are still above average, but have dipped to 34 percent since the graduation of Ben Brust.
Wisconsin will need to maintain a potentially sizable edge in defensive rebounding to win this one, which we'll go more in-depth on next, while analyzing the big men.
As we saw against Georgetown's Josh Smith last week and Kentucky (or even Minnesota) last year, big physical matchups can cause problems for Frank Kaminsky. Jahlil Okafor is not only big (6'11", 270 lb.) but also nimble for his size. He'll be able to bully his way for some inside buckets and putbacks. Kaminsky will counter with some patient footwork of his own, as well as his trusty outside shot that will force Okafor away from the hoop, opening up the lane for guys like Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker. Together with Duje Dukan, the four Wisconsin "Redwoods" have
Kaminsky will need to stay away from foul trouble, because the Badgers won't be able to weather a long Tank-less stretch against Duke the way they did in the Bahamas -- Okafor is too good.
Hayes and Dekker, then, represent the edge that Wisconsin has. Hayes is crafty enough to confuse even a physical superior athlete like Amile Jefferson and should be strong enough to defend him too. At 6'9" Jefferson is Duke's best rebounder, which is saying something considering he's playing alongside Okafor. The junior forward is the third-best offensive rebounder in the country, grabbing 21.8 percent of his own team's misses and 22.9 percent of opponents' misfires.
Meanwhile, Dekker has reverted to his freshman year rebounding rates. He has not appeared limited by the preseason ankle injury, but the fact that he's been held out of portions of practice for weeks says otherwise. Dekker is more free to selectively push his body on the offense end than on defense, where his rebounding lag is most noticeable.
As a team, Wisconsin's rebounding philosophy continues to be limiting the opposition's second chances. This is an annual staple of greatness for the Badgers. They are the fourth-best defensive rebounding team this season, rebounding 77.7 percent of opponents' misses. However, it will take a redoubled effort from the entire team -- including reserves like Vitto Brown and the guards -- to keep the likes of Okafor and Jefferson off the glass. Duke corrals over 41 percent of its own misses as a unit, ranking in the top 20, whereas Wisconsin doesn't crash the boards on that end.
High-flying freshman wing Justise Winslow will be an interesting matchup for Dekker because of his athleticism and length on the perimeter. Dekker will have a few inches on Winslow, though. It would be nice to see Dekker and Kaminsky run a little two-man game a few times tonight to see if their vision and passing can create an advantage in the offense. On defense, Dekker will have to respect Winslow's shot, as he's hitting 39 percent from deep.
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Off the bench the Blue Devils bring seven-footer Marshall Plumlee and powerful 6'8" forward Semi Ojeleye. Those names should be familiar as Bo Ryan recruited both players. Plumlee doesn't look like anything special, but he's wildly efficient in his limited action. Both he and Ojeleye play Vitto Brown-level minutes.
Finally, after his star turn again Oklahoma, Dukan could provide a major boost again for Wisconsin thanks to his three-point shooting and defensive rebounding proficiency, which will be needed when spelling Kaminsky.
Duke's starting guards have worried me all week. Precocious point guard Tyus Jones has guided this team as well as expected for a ballyhooed freshman, assisting on 31 percent of the baskets made by Duke while he is on the court. Jones supplanted senior Quinn Cook as Coach K's floor general this season and the move has worked out splendidly for both parties -- both have posted offensive ratings over 140 (!) so far.
Cook is equally on fire from outside the three-point arc (43 percent) and inside it (62 percent). He is candidate numero uno for putting another D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera performance on the Badgers. Reserve sharpshooter Matt Jones has shot 10-of-18 (55.6 percent) on threes this year and brings added defensive capabilities.
Rasheed Sulaimon is a fourth guard in Duke's rotation, although he has not totally adjusted to coming off the bench. A former top 20 recruit who is better suited to off-guard, Sulaimon is struggling to control his urge to shoot while being tasked with backup point guard duties.
None of the guards foul very much, yet Duke will extend pressure with Cook and Jones, as evidenced by their good steal rates. I am confident in Wisconsin's ballhandling ability with Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig, though Jackson has turned it over six times in the last two games.
Gasser failed to hit from the outside against Oklahoma, but this is the type of game where he needs to bounce back and bury a couple of daggers. He has struggled close to the rim of late, so getting him off good start will be key for UW.
This is Duke's first road game, which has been identified as somewhat of a roadblock for Coach K the last few years. Wisconsin has played the tougher schedule to this point, though the Blue Devils took down Michigan State, Temple and Stanford in succession on a neutral court. On the other hand, Duke toned up against Furman and Army, whereas Wisconsin has been pushed recently by good teams and had plenty of time to recover. (+Wisconsin)
Despite the recovery time, Dekker is still not 100 percent healthy or the training staff would not be taking these precautions with him. Just something to watch. (+Duke)
The home court advantage is a huge edge for Wisconsin, obviously, but don't let that blind you to the fact that the fourth-ranked team in the country is coming in with absolutely zero pressure to win. Duke is young and that will help them stay loose. But they aren't some scrappy collection of underdogs -- they clearly have the talent to beat Wisconsin. (Push)
Coaching? These are two legends in their field. (Push)
It was nearly eight years ago when two teams of this caliber met at the Kohl Center. On January 9, 2007, third-ranked Wisconsin topped No. 5 Ohio State, 72-69, behind Kammron Taylor's 25 points to hand the Buckeyes their only conference loss of the season.
The Badgers have split their only two previous meetings with the Blue Devils, both coming in this annual cross-country series. Tonight's winner will have a legitimate beef with Kentucky's stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking. Because they do so much so well, I think Duke can win this game on the road. If UW wins, credit the schedule that got them ready for it and the team's guards for rising to the challenge.