INDIANAPOLIS - The day before leading their teams into battle, Duke center Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky downplayed their matchup as the focal point of the NCAA national championship game Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Ignore them and the coaches who told them to say that. The comparisons and contrasts are too fascinating to dismiss.
Okafor is the freshman sensation from Chicago who is a leading candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, a recruiting prize for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. Wisconsin was the only major school to pay attention to Kaminsky when he came out of Benet Academy in Lisle, Illinois, and coach Bo Ryan used the 7-footer sparingly off the bench as a freshman and sophomore, when he averaged 10 minutes and 4.2 points.
Two years later, Kaminsky has become the AP national player of the year, averaging 18.7 points and 8.1 rebounds. While the 270-pound Okafor anchors himself near the basket, the gangly, 242-pound Kaminsky plays a more unorthodox game, ranging out to shoot three-pointers as well as taking opponents off the drive and posting up down low.
To Badgers senior Josh Gasser, his development borders on unfathomable. "Sometimes I look back and think, 'How is it possible that he is the national player of the year?' '' Gasser said. "It's crazy how far he has come, but the great thing is that he has always stayed himself.''
Kaminsky developed a versatile set of skills while working every day in the gym at the high school where both of his parents coached. In high school, he was mainly a post-up player, but that changed at Wisconsin.
"When I got to college, it felt like the only time I was open was when I shot the ball from the perimeter,'' Kaminsky said. "I never saw as much size and athleticism in high school as I did in college, and it took a while to adjust to it. Once I got confident in my strength and confident in myself, I was able to go inside and get things done.''
Through the development process, he remained loyal when he wasn't playing much. And when he became an All-American as a junior and had the opportunity to get into the first round of the NBA Draft, he stayed true to his teammates and returned to try to win the national title.
"I'm glad I had to go through the times when I was on the bench and learning and growing up in this program to help me become who I am now,'' Kaminsky said. "This last year in college has been everything I wanted.''
When the teams met Dec. 3 in Madison, the freshman-dominated Blue Devils shot 65.2 percent from the field in an 80-70 win. Kaminsky got the better of his personal battle with Okafor, though, outscoring him 17-13.
Okafor downplayed the rematch, noting that Duke is constantly switching on defense, but said of Kaminsky, "He's an extremely versatile player and he's been the best player in the country all year.''
NBA scouts believe Okafor is more special because he has the quality they love the most: "Upside.''
Kaminsky said of Okafor, "He's proven so far this year what he can do and how bright his future can be. It's never easy to match up with a player like that and try to stop him. But it's either do that or go home without a national title.''
As a person who always has striven to prove he belongs in the best company, he said he has something to prove against Okafor. "You've seen how far he's come as a player and all the accolades he's gotten,'' he said. "It kind of motivates me.''