Fanta Report: Three Factors in the National Championship

Sam Dekker could be poised for an All-American season in 2014-15. (USATSI)
Sam Dekker is a Key Factor for the Badgers/usatsi.com

by John Fanta

It was an especially bitter cold December night in Madison when Duke went into the Kohl Center and commanded Wisconsin, 80-70, in the Big Ten – ACC Challenge.

When the two meet at Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday night, they won’t be playing for an essentially meaningless inter-conference battle. Rather, the Blue Devils and Badgers will be battling for the national championship. 

Bo Ryan, who will be making his first appearance in the finals ever and has led the Big Ten champions to the title game after the Badgers pulled off a 71-64 upset victory over thr previously undefeated Kentucky Wildcats. 

As for the Blue Devils, it’s practically been the Duke Invitational on their side of the bracket. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team has been powered by potential first round draft pick Jahlil Okafor. 

What are the keys to this match-up?

Sam Dekker

The Badgers need the 6-foot-9 junior to spread the floor. Wisconsin’s offense is so effective because this team does not only have bigs, but bigs that can score from anywhere on the floor. That can open things up and then force Duke into some issues defensively. With how little depth the Blue Devils actually have, getting to the rim and forcing Okafor as well as Amile Jefferson to guard the tin could play out to be very intriguing. Frank Kaminsky isn’t a key because we know that the All-American is going to make an impact. Back when the two teams met the first time, “Frank the Tank” scored 17 along with nine boards. Dekker only had five points that night. The Badgers will need him to be much better than that. He has scored multiple three-pointers in four out of five NCAA Tournament games. If he can give the Big Ten champs that kind of night combined with his defensive play, Duke could get frazzled. 

Duke’s Defense

While the Blue Devils contained the guard play of Michigan State, it’s safe to say that facing Wisconsin offers a completely different level of difficulty. The Blue Devils should have the mindset that if Bronson Koenig and Josh Gasser are beating them, then maybe it really is meant to be for the Badgers. Wisconsin’s bench combined for 29 minutes as a whole in Saturday’s win over Kentucky. Their reserves aren’t going to put away Duke. It really comes down to keeping Kaminsky and Dekker from getting anybody else involved in the offensive approach of Wisconsin. Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones could really have a field day on Monday night. Gasser and Koenig will have enough work on defense that their abilities to score will take a drop as is just because of the test they’re facing on the other end. As for Hayes vs. Justise Winslow, that’s a fantastic match-up. Hayes scored 12 on Saturday, while Winslow continued to play like a star, pouring in 19. The two add so much to their respective teams because of their length and ability to score from anywhere. What a battle at the 3-spot. 

Who’s Attacking the Rim? 

In Duke’s four losses, the Blue Devils shot 23-of-81 (28 percent) from three-point range. In Wisconsin’s three defeats, the Badgers went 20-of-64 (31 percent). If this match-up gets into a three-point contest, advantage Wisconsin. Duke has the most physically capable player on the floor in Okafor. Not giving him as many touches as possible would be foolish. A key in itself is whether Wisconsin can guard the entry passes, which is just one of the many little things that this game will come down to, but making it a three-point contest is not what Duke especially should do. 

Final Thought

We won’t be seeing UK go for the unbeaten season Monday, but that takes nothing away from this game. Krzyzewski vs. Ryan offers a curious coaching match-up. For Coach K, a fifth championship would put his already historic legacy to another level. For Ryan, a first title would offers as good as a “feel-good” story gets. On top of that, quite arguably the two best players in the country face off. Kaminsky and Okafor have combined to create so many memories in this 2015 campaign. And they’re not done yet. 

9:18. CBS. It’s so much more than a game. There’s nothing better than the pageantry of March Madness.

Follow us on twitter @John_Fanta and @NCAAHoopsDigest during the game for updates. 


Final Four Preview: As Good As It Gets, Krzyzewski vs. Izzo

Coach K and Tom Izzo Square Off Saturday/ap
by John Fanta

The lead writes itself. 

Duke – Michigan State is not an “appetizer” to Kentucky – Wisconsin. 

Rather, two coaching legends in today’s era of college basketball facing off makes for just as much of a showdown as the one that will tip off following it between the Wildcats and Badgers. 

For Mike Krzyzewski, his 12th appearance in the Final 4 is a great opportunity. The Blue Devils had quite arguably the easiest path to making the national semifinals, and not making a ninth NCAA Championship game could really be considered a let-down for Coach K. 

While the pressure is on the top-seeded Blue Devils, Tom Izzo is playing with fool’s gold. Even he’s said it – Michigan State’s run to the program’s eighth regional championship in the Izzo era is even a surprise to him. The Spartans have had a gruesome path in the East, getting past Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Louisville just to reach this point in the Big Dance. While the run is improbable, Sparty has showed the importance of experience. After falling in the Elite Eight last year to the unstoppable UConn Huskies, this MSU team learned a lot. 

But what has Sparty playing so well? 

A defense that has given up 63 points or less in three of the four NCAA Tournament game. Louisville scored 70 in the East Regional Final, but it took overtime to do it in Sunday’s six-point MSU win. 

On top of that, the Spartans share the ball better than any of the other remaining teams in the field. Izzo’s team is fourth in the country, averaging 17.1 dishes per game. 

As far as Duke goes, the Blue Devils have as talented of a frontcourt player as they come, and several surrounding pieces that, on any given night, can go off. 

There is no question. Jahlil Okafor is going to give Michigan State problems. The 6-foot-11 freshman is putting up 17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. The Blue Devils throw in the dynamic duo of Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones and an explosive small forward in 6-foot-6 Justise Winslow, and that makes for a match-up issue.

It will be fascinating to see how the nation’s hottest defense squares off with a Duke attack that is fourth in the nation with 80.6 points per contest. 

The key?

Michigan State shares the ball tremendously, but if Sparty is to win this game, it comes down to tempo. If this is a run-n’-gun affair, advantage Duke. 

We saw that when the two teams met in Indy on Nov. 18 and Duke forced 13 Michigan State turnovers, going on to win 81-71. 

The Blue Devils score at such a fast rate, and have multiple weapons that can explode. 

With the way senior guard Travis Trice is playing, he has the potential to be the best guard on the floor on Saturday night, and he needs to be. But he’ll also need help, and he received that assistance against Louisville. 

While Denzel Valentine threw in his expected 15 points, it was sharpshooter Bryn Forbes who tacked on four three-pointers, totaling 14 points in the win over Louisville. The Cleveland State transfer is really the prime bench scorer for Izzo, and if MSU is going to find enough scoring to compete with Duke, they’ll need Forbes to deliver a duplicate performance. 

The Spartans have no issues moving the basketball around, so hitting the looks from beyond the arc will become all that much more important. They needed all nine to be able to get past Louisville last Sunday. 

While Duke has options, the Blue Devils really don’t have the bench pieces that can go off. But, it’s the type of team that truly has a starting five that defines “versatility.” 

Key Question: Can anyone contain Winslow? 

The question is crucial on both ends of the floor.

I just don’t see how Duke is going to have many issues getting Okafor involved, but the question becomes whether Michigan State can slow down Winslow with Valentine. He is a staple for Sparty’s offense with 15 points per contest. The last thing MSU needs is for him to have an off-day because of Winslow’s defensive capabilities.

On the offensive end, Winslow has scored 37 points in his last two contests, shooting 48 percent in the process. 

Coach K is 8-1 all-time against Izzo. This match-up could be their finest yet, especially with the way MSU is defending and Duke is playing on the offensive end. Something’s gotta give. 

The Pick: Duke 74, Michigan State 69


Fanta Report: The Blueprint for Beating Kentucky

source: AP
Frank Kaminsky/ap.org

by John Fanta

Bo Ryan should treat Mike Brey like a new best friend this week. No, seriously.

Notre Dame put together as good of a blueprint model of how to hang tight with Kentucky in the Wildcats’ 68-66 triumph in the Elite Eight on Saturday night in Cleveland. 

But what didn’t the Irish do?

ND did not take the ball to the basket late. After Jerian Grant knocked down a three-pointer to give the Irish a 66-64 lead with 2:36 to play, Brey’s team did not get a look within 15 feet of the basket. 

While Kentucky picked up its play on the defensive end of the floor, the motion of Notre Dame’s offense went flat, and the play designs out of timeouts had the Irish pulling up from long range. 

While the Irish were led by First Team All-American Jerian Grant, Wisconsin contains not one, but two weapons that are playing at an All-American level right now. 

While senior Frank Kaminsky is in fact a First Team All-American, junior Sam Dekker has been playing that way but was not honored when the recognitions were handed out this week.

The thing that makes them so special is that not only do they play together, but Kaminsky and Dekker stretch the floor. Kaminsky scored 29 points in Saturday’s 85-78 victory over Arizona, and only used one three-pointer in the process. When he took it in the lane, Dekker was left open, and that’s what led him to the 27-point night, which saw him shoot 8-of-11 from the field. 

There has not been a team in the country that has had a player take the ball at will to the basket late in games against Kentucky and finish. 

The UK backcourt was not particularly on against Notre Dame by any means. Aaron Harrison only went 2-of-7 from the field with six points, while his brother, Aaron, had just seven points on no field goals. That’s why things were left up to the frontcourt, which did deliver, which is exactly why it’s critical that Wisconsin stays tough when UK’s big men begin to try to control the pace. 

Yes, UK has endless amounts of size. 6-foot-10 Trey Lyles is at the small forward spot, and going up against him is a menacing task. But, Lyles is in for his own test against what could be the X-factor in the game, Nigel Hayes. The 6-foot-7 sophomore has scored 49 points throughout the Big Dance’s four contests for Wisconsin. 

While the Badgers are not deep, the dynamic duo of Kaminsky and Dekker can score on opposing teams in many, many ways. In the past two NCAA Tournament games, Wisco has scored just 15 bench points combined. That’s not where a win is going to come from, but rather, it starts and ends with the two stars’ ability to take the ball to the rim. 

If the Badgers are the aggressor the way Notre Dame was for throughout the first 35 minutes last Saturday night, Wisco can get it done with the best player on the floor wearing red in Kaminsky. UK will rack up its blocks, totaling nine against ND. There’s no doubt that the Badgers will have to find some magic from beyond the arc, but growing passive never works against Coach Cal’s group.