NCAA Tournament Title Game Preview: It All Comes Down to This

#1 Duke vs. #1 Wisconsin – 9:18 p.m.

‎It may not be the matchup CBS was looking for and it may not involve a team shooting for an undefeated season, but tonight’s game between Wisconsin and Duke should be a great one. You have two great coaches, two players who battled for player of the year honors, and two #1 seeds. There’s also an element of revenge on the table after Duke won at Wisconsin early in the season. Hopefully you cleared your schedule for tonight because it shapes up as the best final we’ve had on paper since Kansas beat Memphis in the epic 2008 title game.

You could argue that no team played better in the tournament than Duke‎. They handled all their games with reasonable comfort, although it would be fair to argue that the questionable third foul on Delon Wright heavily influenced the outcome of the Utah game. They haven’t had to come down to the last possession‎, whether it was looking for a bucket or a stop. Maybe they got slightly lucky when Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer missed an open layup that turned the game. But it’s March Madness and sometimes you need a little luck. The final 36 minutes of Duke’s performance against Michigan State was a clinic. Sure, there was an athletic advantage, but Duke played so well that future hall of fame coach Tom Izzo couldn’t do anything to stop it.

Hopefully Wisconsin realizes that it’s still got one game left to play. As silly as it might be to think that Wisconsin would have an emotional letdown in the national title game, it’s very possible considering how much they put in emotionally to beating Kentucky. But to Wisconsin’s credit, they’ve had the toughest road to the final. They had to beat North Carolina, Arizona, and Kentucky to get here, which is a much harder road than what Duke faced. They have a veteran team that’s handled every game at one at a time, so they’ll likely be able to raise their level for the moment.

Despite playing already in November, both teams are much different than the first contest. Duke has since adjusted to a four around one system with Justise Winslow moving over to power forward and Matt Jones entering the starting lineup. The lineup gives Duke the ability to spread the floor better on offense and take advantage of Winslow’s athleticism mismatch against whoever is guarding him. Defensively it allows them to switch screens on everything with the exception of ones involving Jahlil Okafor. Wisconsin’s also got a different look as Bronson Koenig took over at point guard for the injured Trevon Jackson. Jackson’s now back from injury but coming off the bench gives Wisconsin a heavier focus on their forwards at their offensive end.

When looking at the advanced metrics, Wisconsin’s biggest advantage is inside. It may also be evident by just looking at their roster, but Wisconsin is the 7th-most effective team in the league at two-point field goal percentage. By comparison, Duke has the 113th defense in the country against two-point field goals. It’s gotten better for Duke in the tournament, but Wisconsin’s combination of Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes, and Sam Dekker should overwhelm Okafor, who’s an average defender, and the shorter Justice Winslow. Duke was able to limit Hayes and Dekker in the first game, mostly because Amile Jefferson was starting for Duke at the time. Jefferson handled Hayes and Winslow handled Dekker, so we’ll see how much Jefferson plays tonight. It might be best to get him a lot of minutes because Duke should be able to score against a Wisconsin defense that has been extremely average in the tournament.

Wisconsin’s biggest weakness on defense is defending the three-pointer. They’re 309th in the country, which doesn’t bode well against Duke’s 25th-ranked three-point shooting. This Duke team isn’t as reliant on three-point shooting compared to past teams because of how dominant Okafor is inside. He battled foul trouble in the first game and that could conceivably happen again. He’ll likely have his way against Kaminsky if not, similar to how Karl-Anthony Towns did on Saturday. (Kentucky should’ve fed him the ball more.) Duke won the first game because of their guard play and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to be successful. Tyus Jones earned the nickname of Tyus “Stones” in part because of how he took over in Madison. Quinn Cook and Rashied Sulaimon also chipped in, so Duke will look to get some points from Matt Jones or Grayson Allen now that Sulaimon is no longer with the team.

In the end, this should be a high-scoring close game. Kentucky failed to convert in the final minutes of their game against Wisconsin. The play-calling was weird and their execution was miserable. Coach John Calipari has never been known as an Xs and Os guru, but Nate Silver highlighted how Kentucky’s loss was on him because of how he slowed down the pace. Duke won’t have that same problem. We know Mike Krzyzewski can handle in-game management and Duke’s guards have shown they can get things done in a game’s final moments. I’ve gone back and forth so much on whom I think wins this game, but I have to give the slight edge to Duke. I’m going to pass on picking a side of an official best bet below because it’s too close. If you’re not a fan of either team, just sit back and enjoy the show.

Vegas Best Bets:

Duke and Wisconsin Over 140 – Both teams can fill it up and Duke’s improved defense will be outmatched by Wisconsin’s offensive prowess. Wisconsin hasn’t been playing as slow as we know them to play.

Duke and Wisconsin Largest Lead Under 12.5 – Both teams can put on spurts, but getting stops to make it a large lead is too much to ask.

Tyus Jones Over 11.5 points – Tyus “Stones” returns.