MADISON, Wis. — They filled the arena Wednesday to see No. 2 Wisconsin square off against No. 4 Duke, a pair of championship hopefuls taking an early-season shot at joining top-ranked Kentucky atop the college basketball marquee.
But what they came for — what fans around the country tuned in for — was a tantalizing clash of rosters and reputations.
And what they got, an 80-70 victory for Duke (8-0), flew in the face of much of what we thought about the Badgers and many might’ve suspected about the Blue Devils.
The Badgers (7-1) are old, with seven of their top eight scorers back from a team that reached the Final Four. When their experience is matched by their efficiency on offense, doggedness on defense and togetherness all over the floor — which happens often — they fit the bill of runaway favorites in the Big Ten.
And when they don’t, they can be dominated, even in their own gym.
The Blue Devils are new, uncharacteristically built around freshmen. There’s 6-11, 270-pound phenom Jahlil Okafor from Young and dazzling 6-6 swingman Justise Winslow. And the best player on the floor was Duke freshman point guard Tyus Jones.
Many understandably looked forward to the head-to-head matchup of Okafor and Wisconsin senior seven-footer Frank Kaminsky. It didn’t entirely disappoint; Okafor had 13 points and Kaminsky 17.
Many — especially those dressed in red inside the Kohl Center — undoubtedly expected the Badgers to school the Blue Devils in team basketball, unselfish playmaking and the like. Those folks were beyond disappointed.
It was the Blue Devils who stayed in their offense throughout the game, with Jones (22 points) leading the way. With long threes, pull-ups off the dribble, lightning drives to the rim and a team-high eight free throws attempted, Jones was the closest thing we’ve seen this season to last year’s NCAA Tournament hero, Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier.
But all the Blue Devils were locked in as the team shot an almost shocking 65.2 percent.
“We’re a good basketball team,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And they’re a great group of guys.”
After the Badgers cut the deficit to 51-49 midway through the second half, Duke hit them with an awesome flurry — a Winslow three, a man-size basket by Okafor in the post and a deft running bank shot by Quinn Cook.
Throughout the latter stages, the Badgers seemed like the less experienced team. They moved the ball unsurely and devolved into a lot of Traevon Jackson (25 points) and not much else.
“Offensively, we were trying to find ourselves,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “It was a struggle. They’re better than us right now,, no question.”