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What we’ve all been waiting for

Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor leads the Blue Devils with 17.7 points per game and will battle Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky in Wednesday’s top-5 matchup.
Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor leads the Blue Devils with 17.7 points per game and will battle Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky in Wednesday’s top-5 matchup.

Wednesday night, the Blue Devils will brave the cold and head to Madison, Wis., to face Bo Ryan and the second-ranked Badgers. Wisconsin is coming off a Final Four appearance in last season’s NCAA tournament, the first such trip in Ryan’s 14-year stay in Madison.

The Badgers returned four starters from last year’s squad, including center Frank Kaminsky. The senior was named to the AP preseason All-America team and is widely considered to either be the best frontcourt player in the country or the second-best, right behind Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. Kaminsky averages 16.6 points per game on 56.3 percent shooting and hauls in 8.7 rebounds per game with 2.4 assists and 2.3 blocks per contest for good measure. Oh, and he also knocks down triples—the 7-footer is 40.7 percent from long distance on the year. You could say he has lived up to the hype so far.

But so has the young man that Kaminsky will go up against Wednesday night. Okafor is averaging 17.7 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting to go along with 7.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.6 blocks per game. Okafor was also a preseason All-American and, like his Badger counterpart, is well on his way to earning first-team All-America honors at season’s end.

And although the battle between Okafor and Kaminsky will be interesting to say the least, there is a lot more at stake in this game for Duke than I believe most people realize. The pundits at ESPN have cast this game as a great matchup between two elite programs with very little hanging in the balance for either team. If Wisconsin wins, it will retain its No. 2 ranking and Duke will most likely slip to either No. 5 or 6—not far from its current position at No. 4. If the Blue Devils walk away victorious, then the most likely scenario is that the two teams will trade spots in the poll.

But this game is about more than a national ranking. It’s about proving that this Duke team is a legitimate contender to reach the Final Four for the first time since Kyle Singler and Co. won it all in 2010. It’s about proving that this team does not have the fatal shortcomings of last season’s squad. It’s about validation.

The Blue Devils have faced a couple of quality opponents so far during this young season. They went to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and beat an experienced and talented Stanford team fresh off a run to the Sweet Sixteen last year. But despite its talent, the Cardinal is not an A-List celebrity in the world of college basketball. Duke also beat Michigan State convincingly at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, but although teams led by Tom Izzo should always be feared, this Spartan squad is nothing compared to teams of years past in terms of ability.

Wednesday’s contest against Wisconsin is the Blue Devils’ first legitimate dogfight of the year—a game worthy of its 9:30 p.m. time slot so that every man, woman and child in America can sit in front of their television screens and ogle at what should be one of the best regular-season games of the year. It’s Duke’s first chance to show that, no, it is not a good team. It is a great team, and one that can go out and beat the Kentuckys and Wisconsins of the world this season.

A loss is not necessarily a bad thing. A competitive game that goes down to the wire but falls just short of going the Blue Devils’ way is still a good sign for this team. A game in which Duke is never really in it and Kaminsky is able to shine would show us shades of 2011-12 and 2013-14, when the Blue Devils could not find a way to beat elite programs early in the season and ended up bowing out in their opening games of the NCAA tournament to Lehigh and Mercer, respectively.

Whether you are going to sit down with a cold one and watch the game closely in its entirely, or you are going to open up a little screen on your computer and watch while you try and grind out that last bit of work before finals week, you should know how important this game is to your team. And although the game may not define the season, it will serve as a very good indicator of things to come.

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