2015 NCAA National Championship Preview: 5 Things to Watch
The NCAA Championship matchup is set.
Duke (34-4) cruised past Michigan State by 20 points in the Final Four, and Wisconsin (36-3) showed that an incredibly efficient and potent offense could beat a previously undefeated Kentucky team, as we suggested was possible a few weeks ago .
The game is a rematch of an early December tilt in Madison, Wisconsin in which the Blue Devils upended the Badgers 80-70 behind freshman guard Tyus Jones' 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. However, tonight's game figures to be an epic rematch, as both teams are playing their best basketball right now when it matters most.
Additionally, with almost 40 games played by each of the teams, the team identities, strengths, and weaknesses are pretty much known and are what they are at this point. Those identities, according to our power rankings, are offensive. Wisconsin is the top ranked offensive percentile team -- better than 99.9% of schools in the country -- and Duke is tied for second -- better than 99.7%.
According to our signature in-house nERD metric, Wisconsin's nERD of 20.46 means they'd be projected to beat Duke (nERD of 19.67) by 0.79 points on a neutral court, so the game is expected to be really close. Our numberFire Live projection gives Wisconsin a 56% probability of winning.
Let's now take a look at the five things to watch for in tonight's game, which should help determine which team cuts the nets down.
1. How Will Duke Guard Wisconsin's Size?
In their first matchup, Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker played 24 minutes and scored 5 points while nursing an ankle injury. Nigel Hayes scored only 4 points as well. The 6'9" Dekker has been the Badgers' most clutch player in the NCAA Tournament and has proven to be a matchup nightmare for tournament opponents, averaging 20.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game on 61.3% shooting and 15 of 30 from three point range.
While Duke has employed a matchup zone at times this season, that approach would probably prove sub-optimal against Wisconsin's great shooters. Thus, Duke freshman 6'6" forward Justise Winslow, the team's most versatile player, will likely be the primary defender assigned to Dekker. It will be interesting to see how Winslow will be able to handle the constant motion of Dekker, who comes off frequent screens in trying to get open looks.
Equally important will be how Duke plans defensively for Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky, the national Player of the Year. Wisconsin runs their offense through the big man, often starting him outside and taking advantage of his dribbling ability, deft footwork, and signature drop-step and length to score.
Duke employed several tactics the first time around to distract Kaminsky, who had 17 points and 9 rebounds, including using 6'11" All-American center Jahlil Okafor on him one-on-one and doubling down in the post. Okafor doesn't like to come out of the key but managed to defend effectively against Michigan State. Since Duke isn't a deep team in the frontcourt, they will have to use Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee in spells to defend Kaminsky as well.
2. Winning the Free Throw Line
Part of both teams' NCAA Tournament success has come from being aggressive on offense and getting to the free-throw line. For Wisconsin, they've had four straight games of 20-plus free throw attempts. For Duke, they have gone to the line 82 times in their last three games, including an astounding 37 attempts against Michigan State in the Final Four.
Overall for the tournament, Wisconsin is 91 for 117 (77.8%) on free throws (they are 76.6% for the season) and Duke is 72 for 98 (73.5%) compared to 69.6% overall for the season.
Wisconsin is known for not fouling much (Kentucky only attempted 10 free throws in their Final Four matchup), but Arizona made 28 of 30 free throws against the Badgers. You'd have to figure that Duke will be aggressive inside with Okafor and Winslow on offense to make Kaminsky and Dekker play on both ends and potentially get them in foul trouble, which would significantly alter the Badgers' game plan.
3. Duke Picking Up the Pace
We all know that Wisconsin is one of the slowest pace teams nationally -- yet one of the most efficient. Getting the Badgers to play differently pace-wise on offense will be next to impossible for Duke. However, if they want to study a game tape of what has worked in spurts for a Wisconsin opponent in the tournament, they should look no further than the game between Duke's rival North Carolina Tar Heels and Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
In that game, North Carolina, one of the fastest offensive teams in the country, led by seven in the second half, outscored the Badgers 10-2 on the fast break, and hit 8 of 13 three pointers, while committing only 4 turnovers for the game (Wisconsin had only 5).
Duke certainly has the guard play and three point shooting to push the tempo and did put up 80 points against Wisconsin in their first matchup, the highest output from a Badgers opponent all season.
4. Duke's Shooting
In the December matchup, Duke shot 65.2% from the field and made 7 of 12 three pointers. One certainly can't expect a repeat performance of that effort, but the quality of shots Duke gets will go a long way in figuring out who will win this game. Additionally, Rasheed Sulaimon, who scored 14 points in 21 minutes against the Badgers in the December game is no longer on Duke's team.
Over the past three tournament games in which Duke has ratcheted up their defense to win games, their three-point shooting has been 13 of 38 (34.2%). This includes a 2 for 10 performance against Michigan State and a 3 for 9 night against Utah, both of which compare unfavorably to their 38.7% three-point shooting for the season.
Duke will have to have see their strong guard play and shooting return in order to set up easy looks for their big guys, especially Okafor.
5. Offensive Rebounding
Even though these two teams are among the best in college basketball offensively, this wouldn't be the 2014-15 college basketball season if both teams don't go cold for a stretch in this game. For instance, Wisconsin went cold against Kentucky for about 5 minutes and Duke's defense stifled Michigan State in the first half after a hot start to 3 of 22 shooting between the first television timeout and halftime.
In fact, part of Duke's defensive improvement in the tournament is how well they've defended the three pointer. In five NCAA Tournament games, they've held their opponents to 21 of 78 (26.9%) from three. This bodes well for the Blue Devils as Wisconsin likes to chuck the three ball. They've shot 45 of 106 (42.5%) from three for the tournament.
While it may not happen, what do these teams need to focus on if they go dry shooting wise? The answer, in short, is to pound the offensive glass.
Wisconsin broke Kentucky's backs by outrebounding the nation's second-best rebounding team 34 to 22 and finished with 12 offensive rebounds, led by Hayes' 4. Wisconsin shot 47.9% for the game, which is essentially their season average and shot typically well at the free-throw line.
These rebounds translated to giving the nation's most efficient offense 12 more possessions. This forces the defense to expend significant energy and play out the shot clock and also results in extra buckets and trips to the free-throw line for the Badgers, making the margin of error against them incredibly slim.
Duke gave up 9 offensive rebounds to the Spartans while grabbing 7 offensive rebounds themselves and are one of the better defensive rebounding teams (seventh overall), in spite of not having a huge frontcourt.
Fasten your seat belts, everyone, because this game could be one for the ages.