Wisconsin came to Cameron Indoor Stadium last night with a well-earned reputation for playing outstanding defense and low-turnover offense. Both sides of that reputation took a severe hit around 9:30 Eastern time. Duke won the game 82-58, and the catalyst for the beat-down came with a little less than 12 minutes remaining in the first half.
With Duke leading 19-14, the 6'4" Gerald Henderson recorded a spectacular block at the rim at the expense of promising yet callow 6'10" freshman Jon Leuer. That led directly to a three in transition by Greg Paulus and a full-court press on the inbounds pass. Whereupon Wisconsin threw the ball directly to the Blue Devils, leading to still another Paulus three. In a matter of less than 25 seconds the game had swung from a manageable 19-16--if Leuer dunks, as he should have--to a red-alert 25-14.
Indeed, given that the halftime score here was 48-25, the contest was clearly won in the frenzied 39-possession first half. In those decisive first 20 minutes, the Blue Devils made nine threes and the Badgers committed nine turnovers to go along with 10 fouls. (Michael Flowers will not be friending these officials on MySpace anytime soon. He was whistled for his second foul when Brian Zoubek tripped him. He was whistled for his third when Henderson climbed onto his back on a would-be alley-oop.) Wisconsin lost the game in the first half; their continued turnovers then prevented them from making any kind of a comeback bid in the second half. Most impressively from a Duke point of view, the Wisconsin turnovers were systemic: no Badger committed more than three turnovers, but a lot of Badgers contributed to that total. Anyone wearing red was a target last night.
That being said, even when Wisconsin held on to the ball they still couldn't score. When a team with such an extreme size advantage comes away from the evening having made just 41 percent of their twos, you know they've been defeated rather soundly. For all the Badgers' size, Bo Ryan had (has?) no one who could turn post touches into points or free throws.
Mike Krzyzewski can coach. The game plan for last night's contest was simple but there can be beauty in simplicity. The Blue Devils pressed on defense and spread the floor on offense. Add "pack the lane in your half-court D" to that and you have pretty much the book on how to play Wisconsin.
On offense last night, Duke looked a little like Memphis, or at least they did until a shot went up. The Devils spread the floor and took the larger (i.e., slower) Badgers off the dribble. Where the similarly-spaced Tigers under John Calipari would have then shot the ball from the lane, however, Coach K's men usually preferred to dish the ball to an open teammate on the arc. It worked because Wisconsin had to defend multiple three-point threats; Taylor King made five threes in 20 minutes of playing time. The Badgers had to come out and guard these guys. Also note that DeMarcus Nelson, who alone among the Devils struggled to make shots, was nevertheless able to help the cause by dishing five assists in 17 first-half minutes.
Nelson's teammate Paulus had no such struggles, hitting four of seven threes and leading all scorers with 18 points. Paulus is building his college career the way you put memory upgrades into a computer: year by year he's adding new skills that are complete and intact. Last year it was perimeter shooting, as he went from being horrible (he hit 31 percent of his threes as a freshman) to outstanding (making 45 percent of his threes as a sophomore). Now Paulus is a junior and it's time to plug in taking care of the ball. If he can hold on to the ball for the first time in his career, get ready to, uh, hear as much as you've always heard about him. Only now it'll be justified.
For Wisconsin, there's solace in defeat. Trevon Hughes couldn't get on the floor last year but somehow he looks like he's burst forth fully-formed and ready, along with Brian Butch, to take on one of the two main roles in the Badger offense. He couldn't hit his shots last night and he turns the ball over a little too often, yet he's quick, aggressive and assured on both sides of the ball. That's good news in Madison.
Now, an assertion that's become so commonplace it's a cliché. I can't help that. It needs to be said again. And again, and again, and again.
The announcing team working the game last night posed a constant and intractable obstacle between viewers and the game. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, is pretty much the precise opposite of what an announcing team is supposed to do.
I literally found myself leaning in toward the TV and squinting at the screen, as if that would help me follow what Gerald Henderson was doing while the announcers went happily and blissfully AWOL, addressing such pressing matters as Ronde Barber, the new College Basketball Experience in Kansas City and, inevitably, Jimmy V.
This announcing team has been tarred on occasion with the easy catch-all pejorative "ESPN," but let us be clear. It's not ESPN. Jay Bilas, Bill Raftery and Sean McDonough share a water cooler with these guys, yet they're consistently outstanding. No, it's simply that last night's announcing team has apparently been given free reign by someone in the organizational chart to ignore the game whenever they want. Which, as it happens, is very often.
That's worse than annoying. It's unprofessional in the most literal sense of the term. Anyone else in the world is free to talk about whatever they want to talk about. Last night's announcing team, on the other hand, was paid specifically to talk about Wisconsin vs. Duke. They should have tried it from time to time.
One last thing. Not once but twice during last night's telecast it was said that Duke had the lowest-rated "offense" in the ACC last year, a claim made based on that dubious and crude farrago known as points per game.
ACC Offense, 2007, Conference games only
North Carolina 1.13
Florida State 1.10
Boston College 1.10
Virginia Tech 1.08
Georgia Tech 1.07
NC State 1.01
Wake Forest 0.95
The Duke offense last year was no thing of beauty, goodness knows. Still, it wasn't the worst in the conference by a long shot. More importantly, it looks like it'll be even better this year.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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