Age is just a number. That is a statement that is typically just for the elderly. However, on Wednesday night, Wisconsin learned the hard way at the hands of freshmen-oriented Duke that this can be the case.
The Badgers, who fall on their home floor about as often as the Beatles miss a note, saw Duke play a nearly flawless game despite the only 10 point margin and despite most of their starting lineup being newborns when Bill Clinton was elected for his second term.
How do you beat a team who plays swarming defense all night long and miss only 15 shots for the game … as a team? The answer is simple: you don’t, no matter how well you play.
Each team set the tone early on for their differing styles of play. On the first few possessions, Duke looked to establish super freshman Jahlil Okafor deep in the post, while Wisconsin saw its first two shots being nailed from outside the arc by seven-foot senior Frank Kaminsky. While there is no doubt that the eventual Naismith Award winner was involved in this game, the two styles of play define the teams as a whole.
Duke was attacking the rim all night, which starts to explain the high shooting percentage. However, the Badgers are a strong defensive team who would seemingly put a wrench into this Blue Devil plan. That just never happened. Duke was just able to impose its will on the Wisconsin defense all night and the Badgers just did not have an answer.
While Okafor gets most of the hype, and rightfully so, Tyus Jones is the heartbeat of this team. This marks the second time in the early season that Okafor has gotten into foul trouble in the second half against a top Big Ten team (the first against Michigan State). Each time, Jones completely took over the game, while knifing the other defense on penetration to get to the rim. Along with Okafor, Jones is a freshman.
In addition to Jones, the guard play for the Blue Devils was just fantastic each time they are without Okafor on the floor. Quinn Cook seems to have found a defined role on this squad, which was lacking at times last year. Also, junior Rasheed Sulaimon has been strong off the bench on both side of the ball. Duke has been waiting for consistency from Sulaimon for a couple of years now and his emergence could be a difference maker over the long haul.
The only lacking element for Duke Wednesday was Justise Winslow, who has been strong all season. Winslow was simply a non-factor most of the night on the offensive end, which may have been due to the game plan.
With an entirely different approach, Wisconsin had some success on Wednesday as well. The Badgers, in typical fashion for them, look to have more versatile big men, who can shoot and handle the ball. That is no different with Bo Ryan’s team this year.
At times in the second half, Kaminsky was able to take over. He was able to beat several Blue Devil bigs off the dribble and get to the rim. Much of the first half, Kaminsky was playing on the perimeter and looking for the open shot, but when Duke started switching up its match-ups, Kaminsky adjusted his approach as well, showing his well-rounded game that has him viewed as one of the top players in the nation.
This work by Duke limited the offensive work from almost everyone except Kaminsky and Traevon Jackson. Jackson provided a nice mix of penetration with outside shooting, but he also got into some foul trouble in the first half. If Jackson is able to provide some spark off the dribble for the Badgers all season, that could be huge with the amount of shooters that the squad has.
Similar to Winslow for Duke, Wisconsin got nearly nothing out of Sam Dekker, who just had a hard time even getting to his shot all night long. Nigel Hayes was also a non-factor for the game inside for the most part. Much of this was due to the defensive approach of the Blue Devils, who looked to control the arc by switching and sticking with shooters.
As the complete anti-Duke, the Badgers start three seniors and a junior and certainly do a lot of work on the perimeter as a team. In fact, it was over 10 minutes into the game before they even hit a two point shot.
The good news for Wisconsin: they will not play that swarming defense of Duke every night. Also, the Badgers did several good things, so there is no need for any panic at all. Most times when a team scores 70 points, shoots over 40 percent, turns the ball over only eight times and allow only 18 free throw attempts to the opposing team, they win. This is almost always going to be a victory in the Big Ten, just not against the Blue Devils.
While there are tremendous differences between the two squads, there is also once glaring similarity that will have each playing deep into March. They both take care of the ball and play hard defense without fouling. Limiting turnovers and keeping the other team off the foul line is nearly always a recipe for victory, it just didn’t happen for Wisconsin on Wednesday night.