Duke’s 68-63 upset of Wisconsin in Monday night’s 2015 NCAA Championship game is everything that’s great about college basketball. The improbable finish, incredible plays by unheralded performers, team work and the emergence of young PTP’ers (In the words of the great Dick Vitale) who will hold the future of college basketball in their hands.
On the flip side we also saw everything about the current state of the sport and the one-and-done athlete that kills programs, sends underdeveloped players to The NBA and gets you feeling all nostalgic and depressed.
It was improbable, unexpected and amazing to see four Duke freshmen seize the moment and guide Coach K to a fifth NCAA Title. The nation's top 2014 recruiting class came through after all.
Too bad we’ll never get to see them duplicate the feat because Okafor is the projected No. 1 pick in June's NBA Draft, Justise Winslow is a projected lottery pick, and before freshman guard Tyus Jones could get his MOP (Most Outstanding Player) award on the mantle, rumors began circulating that he might enter the draft while his name is flames.
In true March Madness fashion, Jones did his best Kemba Walker impersonation by dropping 19 of his game-high 23 points in the second half with an array of athletic drives and acrobatic fall away treys. In fact, Jones accounted for more than 50 percent of Duke’s 37 second-half points. Talk about taking over a game.
Wisconsin went cold at the wrong time and missed 11-of-14 shots during a stretch late in the second half. When the smoke cleared, all you saw was Jones bang another NBA—range three-pointer with 1:21 left in the game to cap a 10-0 Blue Devils scoring run that put them up 66-58.
Jones put the finishing touches on his prolific performance by nailing a pair of free throws with 34.8 seconds left to leave Badgers fans, Bo Ryan and POY Frank Kaminsky stunned.
After disposing of John Calipari’s “unbeatable” Kentucky team, few people thought a Duke team with eight players (four of them fresh meat) could compete with the veteran-laden, long and defensively-disciplined Badgers.
“All year we’ve been saying it... Eight is enough,” said coaching icon Mike Krzyzewski, who continues to dominate college basketball’s X & O game.
While Jones’ performance may have been in the making, the most knowledgeable basketball mind couldn’t have predicted that fellow frosh Grayson Allen (2014 McDonald's All-American) would break out of his shell and become the 2015 version of Rex Chapman, using his team-leading 37 ½ inch vertical leap to change the entire flow of the contest. Allen, who had scored 18 points in his last six games combined, exploded for 16 points with his own brand of high-flying aerial moves and intensity. Ten of those 16 points came in the second half when Duke was going blow for blow with Kaminsky and crew, as 7-footer Jahlil Okafor and Winslow played bench cheerleader for large parts of the game due to foul trouble.
“These guys love Grayson, Coach K said after the game. “We were nine points down and dead in the water and Grayson put us on his back…”
Then Jones finished the journey. “My teammates and coaches believed in me all year,” Jones said on TV. “They trusted me to make a play… and this team never wants to let each other down.”
Wisconsin’s band of upperclassmen – the same group that had outclassed undefeated Kentucky two nights earlier—fell victim to a duo of newbie backcourt phenoms, who were more athletic, quicker and deadlier.
These young cats just seemed to have springboards in their legs as compared to Bo Ryan’s bunch down the stretch. At the end of the day, you can also say, they were better coached.
The bright side of this Duke victory is that Allen and Jones have already let heads know who the country’s best backcourt is going into 2016.
The downside is that Okafor and Winslow will be leaving to go pro. If everything works out for the All-American, he will be the No. 1 pick of the NY Knicks in a few months. Okafor didn’t do anything to help or hurt his billing during the championship game, but watching the big man struggle defensively at times, makes me wish he could get one more year of seasoning at this level. I’m sure Phil Jackson feels otherwise.
Imagine how many NCAA National Championships this Duke team could win with these "Fab Freshman," if top college players still remained in school more than a year or two.
Same for Kentucky. Some of those guys are one –and-done or two-and-done ballers who will never get the opportunity to come back and get revenge for losing in the semifinals.
Back in the day, NBA-bound babies like The Harrison Brothers and Karl Anthony-Towns -- having gone 38-0 only to lose in the Final Four to a squad that didn’t even win it all -- would have returned to college with a renewed dedication to getting better and erasing the taste of defeat from their mouths,
Going through such trials and tribulations is part of the benefits of the college experience. It makes you stronger and more humble and inevitably better as a person and player.
We will never get a chance to see any of these remarkable teams develop into the next college dynasty, which is the most tragic part of emotionally investing in college teams these days. It’s more like a trip through an Amsterdam brothel than a nice place to find a wife. However, March Madness “the event” has once again lived up to its reputation. Upsets, a Finals matchup between the top two big men in the country, classic clashes and the young stunners who hit the apex of their competitive spirits at the perfect time.