Wisconsin, Duke meet again for national championship

Published 2:42 am Monday, April 6, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bo Ryan doesn’t want to face Duke center Jahlil Okafor.

“There’s no way I could match up with him,” joked Wisconsin’s gray-haired coach. “He’d kill me.”

Luckily, Ryan has 7-footer Frank Kaminsky on his side to bang elbows in the post with the Blue Devils’ freshman phenom.

Email newsletter signup

Kaminsky vs. Okafor: The game within the national championship game Monday night.

“It should be pretty interesting for purists of the game to watch two bigs like that go against one another,” Ryan said before Sunday’s practice.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the title game is coming down to teams with the guys considered the top contenders for top player honors: Kaminsky won the AP’s player of the year, Okafor finished a distant second.

They played to a virtual draw the last time their teams faced each other, an 80-70 win by Duke in Madison on Dec. 3. Kaminsky had 17 points and nine rebounds, but was 5 of 12 from the field. Okafor had 13 points and six boards, but was 6 of 8 from the field.

So much has changed since then, though.

Start with the experienced Kaminsky, whose versatile skills present a matchup nightmare. He’s as comfortable in the post as he is spotting up from the 3-point line. Press the Wisconsin guards in the backcourt and Kaminsky can come up to relieve pressure with his ball-handling. Double-team Frank the Tank and he’ll find the open shooter.

“Obviously he’s the national player of the year, but he’s as unique of a player in college as I’ve seen in a while,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said.

Making matters worse for the Blue Devils is that they must also contend with 6-foot-9 forward Sam Dekker, who is equally adept at scoring inside and out.

He was bothered by a sore ankle in the first meeting, held to five points in 24 minutes.

Now, Dekker is averaging 20.6 points in the NCAA Tournament.

Pay more attention to Kaminsky at your own peril.

“A lot of stuff starts with Frank,” Dekker said. “That’s what obviously helps us to be a good offensive team, when we run a lot of things through Frank.”

That is exactly the point that Okafor tried to make, too.

“We have to deal with the entire Wisconsin team,” he said. “So it’s going to be a collection of myself and my teammates working together on both ends of the floor.”

That has been the message for most of the season at short-handed Duke, where everyone must chip in. Then again, Okafor is nearly irreplaceable, a 6-foot-11 blend of power and quickness around the bucket, someone who can rile up a crowd with rim-shaking dunks.

“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” Kaminsky said.

The Badgers have also taken notice of Okafor on the other end of the floor.

NCAA Tournament opponents are shooting just 37 percent against Duke, a big reason why the big guy in the paint. Okafor had two blocks and two steals to go with 18 points and six rebounds in Saturday night’s semifinal victory over rough-and-tumble Michigan State.

“Well, he’s better. His defense is better,” Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard said, comparing Okafor these days to the player he saw in December. “He is seasoned more and he’s got more experience.”

Whether it’s this year or next, Okafor is the likely top pick in the NBA draft, while Kaminsky will be playing the final game of his senior season on Monday night.

The two could be squaring off against each other in the NBA this fall. But first, there’s one last game between the two best college big men in the country.