First of all, I want to briefly address just how good Monday night’s National Championship game was. If you couldn’t appreciate that basketball game, then you don’t like sports. Two tremendously coached, evenly matched teams, that both wanted it just as badly as the other, going at each other as hard as they can. In a contest where I had no rooting interest, it was as exciting and back-and-forth a game as you could ask for. It doesn’t get any better than that. Wisconsin was fantastic, but in the end, Duke was just a hair better, 68-63.
The reason Duke was better? Their four freshmen were fantastic. Kentucky gets all the hype when it comes to “one-and-dones” and teams carried by freshmen star power, but when you think about it, we should have seen this Duke team coming. They had the top ranked freshmen class entering the season, and they proved exactly why on the biggest stage.
Jahlil Okafor — the most heralded of the group as the top recruit in the nation — was battling foul trouble throughout the game. He understandably had a tough time covering the National Player of the Year, and a senior, Frank Kaminsky. Despite playing just 22 minutes and only grabbing three rebounds, Okafor still impressed late. He scored just 10 points, but showed the ability to come off the bench cold during crunch time and deliver two HUGE buckets to help clinch the Blue Devils’ victory.
Justise Winslow was Duke’s best player in the tournament heading into the Final Four, and he had continued success on Monday. The 12th ranked prospect coming out of high school had a lot of out of control drives to the basket against Wisconsin, which led to him getting in foul trouble, as well. But despite his four fouls, Winslow was still able to go 32 minutes and net 11 points to go along with nine boards and three rejections.
I mentioned Winslow being the Blue Devils’ best player up until the Final Four, and that’s where their closer, Tyus Jones, took over. Jones plays so far beyond his years that it’s stunning at times how composed he is in gigantic moments. Just look at the fact that Coach K made Jones the primary ball handler over senior captain Quinn Cook. Jones poured in 23 points (19 in the second half), include multiple step back jumpers on some of the most clutch possessions of the game. Nobody helped their draft stock in the tournament as much as Tyus, who was the fifth ranked high school prospect last season. Give me this kid on my team any day.
Finally, we have Grayson Allen. The little used wing, who just happened to be the 34th ranked prospect when he was the first of the four to commit to Duke. Allen’s talent when he was on the floor was inevitable, but minutes were hard to come by early in the season … as they typically are for freshmen. But after the team dismissed Rasheed Sulaimon, Allen’s role began to grow. It was easy to see his potential, but he was looking like he would have to wait and grow into a future star at Duke. For Allen, the future was Monday night. He was the X-factor of the National Championship game with 16 points off the bench. Allen had 10 of those points in the second half; however, eight of them came with Duke dead in the water down by nine points, and it was Allen that shot his team back into the game.
Duke doesn’t capture this title without the contributions of all four of these guys. Each of the four will one day be first-round NBA draft picks — likely Okafor will be a top-3 pick this season, Winslow a top-10, Jones a top-20 and Allen will return to school for at least another season before one day playing in the league — and probably still would have been before this game.
If we played the tournament again, Kentucky would still be the favorite, but that would be because of the juniors and sophomores that they can play with their strong freshmen class. Monday it was Duke’s freshman class — with 60 of the team’s 68 points (the most in title game history) — proving why they’re the best in the land.
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