INDIANAPOLIS — Duke languished in the shadows of Kentucky all season, the big blue juggernaut that nobody seemed to be talking about. It was a rarity for a program with such a championship pedigree, not to mention a record-setting coach and superstar freshmen.
They can thank Wisconsin for finally returning to the limelight.
The fun-loving Badgers ended the Wildcats’ pursuit of perfection in the national semifinals, and set up an intriguing showdown in the April 6 title game: Duke trying to give Mike Krzyzewski his fifth national championship, Wisconsin trying to capture its first in 74 years.
“I don’t think basketball fans that I know would ever say that Duke didn’t have a good team,” countered Badgers coach Bo Ryan, who won four Division III titles at Wisconsin-Platteville.
“A lot of people thought they had a pretty good team because they spanked our team at our place in December,” he said. “I can’t say that they were ignored, that’s for sure.”
Yet the buzz at the Final Four this week was focused on Kentucky. The only folks giving the Badgers much of a chance were wearing red and white and scarfing down cheese.
Along with the coach in the other locker room.
“Coming into the year, I thought they’d be the best team in the country, and they have been,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s just that Kentucky’s undefeated performance has overshadowed just how good Wisconsin has been, until (Saturday) night. There aren’t any shadows anymore.”
The Blue Devils (34-4) have run roughshod through the NCAA Tournament, relying on suffocating defense and game-changing freshman Jahlil Okafor to shut down opponents. They’re allowing just 55 points per game, one of the finest defensive performances in tournament history.
Meanwhile, Okafor and his merry band of freshmen — Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen — have risen to the challenge of the game’s biggest stage. The four led the way in a semifinal blowout of Michigan State, a game never in question after the first 5 minutes.
“We want to be one of those teams that coach is bragging about five, seven years later,” senior guard Quinn Cook said. “So that’s the motivation for us, to be special.”
As if they needed any more motivation, Krzyzewski has been waving his 2010 title ring in their faces all tournament. He earned it in Indianapolis, in the same building as this year’s Final Four, and steps away from where he won his first championship at the Hoosier Dome in 1991.
“That’s what we want to get,” Okafor said, glancing at the glittering ring on Coach K’s hand. “We’ve always talked about us having an opportunity to have a national championship ring.”
The loveable goofballs from Wisconsin (36-3) are standing in their way, and nobody can argue they haven’t earned the right. Only three other teams have faced the highest possible seed in every game on the way to the championship since the field expanded to 64 in 1985.
Two of those lost in the title game. None had to face another No. 1 seed.
“They know they have a chance to make a mark in history. They understand that,” Ryan said Sunday. “But they’re enjoying it while they do it, and that’s important, too.”
Indeed, the Badgers have become the clown princes of the NCAA Tournament. From messing with stenographers to podium hijinks, to their penchant for playing Super Smash Bros., the free-spirited Big Ten champs have taken an entire fan base — and plenty of casual fans — on quite ride.
“That’s just how we are,” explained the Badgers’ Sam Dekker. “Some people tell us on Twitter, ‘Focus, guys!’ But that’s just us. We know when to focus.”
Or, as teammate Nigel Hayes put it, “We don’t try to be ourselves. We just ARE ourselves.”
What they are is an offensive powerhouse led by AP player of the year Frank Kaminsky that is averaging nearly 80 points in the tournament. They’re a veteran group that’s been through the grind. They’re the counter argument to all those critics that argue the college game has fallen off, that scoring is down, execution is sloppy and the product has never been worse.
They’re also the team that has already avenged a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky in last year’s national semifinals, and is now one step away from its first championship since 1941.
“Whatever this team accomplishes Monday night, one way or the other, it’s still who they are,” Ryan said. “I’ve never been concerned if there are people that perceive us a different way, because we are who we are. We play the way we play. We’re sure happy with it. So we can live with that.”
(DAVE SKRETTA, AP Sports Writer)