There may not be a better game all season long than the battle between No. 4 Duke and No. 2 Wisconsin that will take place in Madison on Wednesday evening.
It’s not difficult to figure out why. The Blue Devils and the Badgers are both currently sitting in the top three of the NBCSports.com Top 25 largely because you may not find two better offensive teams in the country. Some teams will score more points than the Badgers because of their style of play, but no one runs better sets and, by the time the season is all said and done, there may not be a more efficient team than Wisconsin. Duke? They have as much firepower on that end of the floor as anyone.
And that’s really all you need to make a college basketball game held in December must-see TV, but it gets even better. Duke and Wisconsin feature the nation’s two best players, two guys that play the same position, are from the same area and just so happen to be the focal point for those powerhouse offensive attacks. One of them, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, is a senior that came out of nowhere to become an all-american. The other is a freshman, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, that has been pegged as a superstar since he hit the high school ranks.
It does not get any better than this.
Okafor and Kaminsky may play the same position and are both be labeled as offensively skilled, but the way that they play is not all that similar.
And therein lies the most intriguing part of this matchup.
Okafor is one of the most skilled low-post scorers I’ve ever seen come through the college ranks. We talk about upside and ceiling all the time when it comes to basketball prospects, and Okafor’s ceiling is the next Tim Duncan. He needs to become a better out-of-his-area rebounder and he’s still learning how to defend and use his size to overpower defenders, but when you combine the fact that he’s 6-foot-11 and 260 pounds with nimble feet, a soft touch around the rim and an exquisite ability to pass out of the post, what you’re left with is a guy that is almost impossible to game-plan for.
In his first game against high-major competition, Okafor had 17 points on 8-for-10 shooting in a 77-63 win over No. 19 Michigan State. The Spartans began the game allowing their big men — Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello — to go one-on-one against Okafor in the post, and it wasn’t pretty. He scored eight of Duke’s first 14 points, assisting on one bucket and creating a dunk for Amile Jefferson with his passing out of the post on another possession.
Michigan State mixed up their defenses later in the game, which helped slow down Okafor but which also created mismatches elsewhere on the floor. The problem with defending Duke is that they can surround Okafor with a lineup where they have four players with three-point range that are capable of scoring 20 points on a given night. Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Rasheed Sulaimon, Matt Jones, Grayson Allen. All of those guys can hit open threes, can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, and will make the next pass if their teammate has a better look.
He’s able to find the guys that are left open when defenses collapse around him.
When the Blue Devils played Stanford, Johnny Dawkins started the game by putting 6-foot-8 Reid Travis — a guy that was recruited by BCS schools to be a football player — on Okafor and 7-footer Stefan Nastic on Jefferson. The Cardinal would double Okafor on the catch, which did not work out at all for Stanford.
Here are two examples of what I mean. In the first, you can see Okafor (red circle) getting double-teamed. Jefferson (green circle) is left all alone until the basket, and Okafor found him for a dunk:
In this next example, Okafor (red) is trapped in what looks like a bad spot on the baseline, but Tyus Jones (green) is all alone in the corner on the other side of the floor. Okafor sees him, and while he doesn’t get the assist, Duke ended up getting a dunk on the play as the ball was moved and the Stanford defense broke down:
What Stanford did in the second half was to allow Nastic to try and defend Okafor one-on-one, and given Nastic’s size, that was as effective as any defense that Okafor has seen this season.
I expect Wisconsin to do the same on Wednesday night.
Kaminsky is a 7-footer. He’s just as big and just as strong as Okafor. He’s not quite as good as Nastic is on the defensive end of the floor, but his size will give Okafor trouble as the freshman hasn’t quite figured out how to bully players his own size. It’s the same way that the Badgers defended Josh Smith last week when they beat Georgetown in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Add in the fact that Okafor does not draw a lot of fouls — he’s gone to the line 23 times in seven games, nine of them coming against Army — and Bo Ryan doesn’t have to be all that concerned about his all-american getting into foul trouble.
What will be more interesting is how Wisconsin decides to defend Jefferson, but I’ll come back to that in a second.
The way Wisconsin utilizes Kaminsky is much different from what Duke does with Okafor. Kaminsky is a talented low-post scorer, but what makes him so dangerous is his perimeter ability. Kaminsky was a guard for most of his life, but he hit a late growth-spurt that sent him up to 7-foot without doing any damage to his coordination or ball skills.
He can hit threes and he can put the ball on the floor and he can do things like this, and that opens up a bevy of options for Ryan, who has, since his Division III days, believed that the toughest thing to stop is a bigger player going one-on-one in the post. What he does better than anyone in the country is something called inverting the offense, which is a simple concept, really: He has his big men throwing entry passes to his perimeter players that are posting up. He’s able to do this because he always has skilled big men with three point range.
And in this matchup, the Badgers will have a size advantage at almost every position on the floor outside of Kaminsky, particularly on the perimeter. Sam Dekker is 6-foot-9 and he’ll likely be guarded by 6-foot-7 Justise Winslow, if not someone smaller. Josh Gasser is 6-foot-3 and will have one of Duke’s two point guards on him. Nigel Hayes is stronger than Jefferson, and may end up being guarded by Winslow quite a bit as well.
Regardless of what the matchups are, what we do know is that Kaminsky will be allowed to be the guy that spreads the floor for the Badgers, putting Okafor, who has a reputation for being an average, at best, defender, in a difficult position.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Trae Jackson (green), Wisconsin’s point guard, is the player posting up with four Oklahoma defenders surrounding him. Kaminsky (red) is wide open at the top of the key:
The end result?
Three-ball for Kaminsky.
This is not an uncommon occurrence, either. If you read Luke Winn’s Power Rankings, you would know that all of Kaminsky’s three attempts are coming from the right wing or the top of the key. The reason for this? The sets that Wisconsin run to invert their offense all involve a back-screen for a player on the opposite wing who comes in behind the defense …
… and posts up on the left block. To spread the floor, Kaminsky will either be at the top of the key or at the opposite wing:
All of this brings me back to Amile Jefferson.
Jefferson is a 6-foot-8 forward that can defend in the post, meaning he is the ideal guy for Duke to have on the floor to deal with Hayes, who is one of the most improved players in the country. That would allow Justise Winslow to slide over and cover Dekker at the small forward spot, but it would also mean that Duke would then have two guys on the floor offensively that can be helped off of.
Teams do not even need to guard Jefferson 12 feet from the rim. When Stanford doubled Okafor, they doubled off of Jefferson every single time. Winslow is an improving shooter, but he’s not to the point where he cannot be helped off of.
Which creates a conundrum for Mike Krzyzewski.
With Jefferson on the floor, it allows him to defend Bo Ryan — and how he uses Kaminsky — better. But at the same time, it makes it that much easier for Ryan to double-team Okafor and force the ball out of his hands.
In a matchup with this much hype and talent and coaching acumen, the x-factor is a guy who takes five shots a night.