The NCAA tournament is all about matchups. Weaknesses are exploited, strengths neutralized and styles mixed into a cauldron of unpredictability. Like volatile chemical compounds, it’s difficult to know how two teams will interact when thrown together in the tournament.
Judging from an understanding of a team’s weakness, however, one can formulate what kinds of matchups might prove troubling.
For instance, Duke has struggled all year with rebounding, defense, quality post play and a heavy reliance on outside shooting. As a result, four teams in the Blue Devils’ Midwest Region would pose serious problems for Duke.
This potential second-round matchup has the makings of a classic. Doug McDermott is obviously the Bluejays’ focal point as he averages 23.1 points and 7.5 rebounds. At one point, he and Mason Plumlee were jostling at the front of the line for the national player of the year award.
While that early season hype has faded, McDermott has maintained a stat line that has kept him in the national spotlight. The problem for Duke, then, would be to prevent him from shining too brightly.
McDermott would pose a massive test for the Blue Devils’ defense. He has both post moves and good shooting range. In fact, McDermott’s game is similar to that of Ryan Kelly, and it’s Kelly who seems like the obvious player to defend the dangerous McDermott.
While Ryan Kelly has a height advantage over McDermott, which might make it difficult for McDermott to shoot over him, Kelly didn’t have great lateral speed even before his injury.
Against Kelly, McDermott would likely try to drive to the basket or post up inside. Even if Kelly’s interior defense was solid, McDermott would likely draw a double-team, which would free up other shooters. Banging inside might also draw some fouls on Duke’s all-important senior stretch forward.
Defending McDermott gets more complicated when Creighton uses switches to match him up with Mason Plumlee. Duke’s center has a habit of playing weak interior defense and simply can’t move outside to cover McDermott’s shooting ability.
If the Bluejays are creative on offense, they could certainly put Duke’s defense in a difficult spot. Creighton love a fast tempo and have a proven ability to put points on the board. Duke’s offense would be under pressure to keep up, and the defense would likely struggle to constantly adjust to the unique skill set of Doug McDermott.
Don’t sleep on the Bearcats. Though Creighton are the favorites, Cincinnati is more than capable of pulling off the first round upset and then giving Duke all they can handle.
The Bearcats went 9-9 in the physical Big East and fit the mold of a bruising Big East team. Cincinnati’s goal is to defend and rebound. Games with scores in the 50s and 60s are the Bearcats’ blueprint for victory, and the team is eighth in the country in rebounds-per-game (via ESPN).
The imposing team is lead by Sean Kilpatrick, a guard averaging 16.9 points and who primarily gets buckets off penetration. Kilpatrick isn’t much of a three-point threat, but he drives the lane with ferocity. Duke has struggled to stop penetration, and the ability of the Bearcats to get in the lane and crash the boards would pick out two of Duke’s weakest points.
A game against Cincinnati would be a second-round gut check for the Blue Devils. Plumlee’s problem with getting pushed off the post, the defense’s inability to rotate against penetration and the lack of rebounding would all be on full display.
If Duke were making threes at a healthy rate, Cincinnati’s offense might struggle to keep up. If, on the other hand, the Blue Devils ran into shooting struggles, Cincinnati would be just the type of team to take out Duke.
No team is more synonymous with rebounding than Michigan State. And, perhaps, no team is more emblematic of a lack of rebounding than Duke.
A game against No. 3 seed Michigan State would be another epic clash between two of basketball’s top programs. It would also be a clash between two entirely different styles of play. Like Cincinnati, Michigan State would seek to hold down the Blue Devils’ scoring and turn the game into a battle on the boards. Duke, meanwhile, would seek to make it a shooting match that spread the floor.
This would be another game in which a hot shooting Duke team would probably perform favorably, but a hiccup in hitting their shots would be a serious setback for the Blue Devils. On the one hand, Michigan State would struggle to guard Ryan Kelly and Duke’s perimeter shooting guards. On the other, the Blue Devils would be very much out of their element trying to outmuscle the Spartans in the offensive paint.
Keith Appling is a quality guard who could cause problems for Duke. Through switches he could manipulate the defensive cover until Seth Curry was forced to check him. At that point the Spartan guard would provide his team with a reliable scoring option.
Both the Big Ten and Big East are conferences known for their physicality, so the problems Cincinnati would pose for the Blue Devils are the same ones Michigan State would present. However, Michigan State has the added benefit of a hall of fame coach to match Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. So the epic battle would be a toss up between two diametrically opposed styles of play, and the winner might as well be decided by a coin flip.
The selection committee tabbed Louisville as the overall No. 1 seed. While the Cardinals certainly hit their stride at the end of the season, there was a point when the team lost three games in a row. What that losing streak demonstrated was that Louisville’s weakness is effectively the same as Duke’s.
Louisville plays pressure defense and primarily relies on strong guard play and outside shooting. As a result, Louisville averages an impressive 73.6 points-per-game. That’s slightly less than Duke’s 78.3 points-per-game, but the Big East offered up more defensive resistance than the ACC.
But the problem is that when the shots aren’t falling, Louisville has a bad habit of continuing to force low-percentage shots. Duke does the same thing, so the game could be high scoring thanks to good shooting, low scoring thanks to bad shooting or a blowout one way or the other. Whatever the case, it’d be very easy for Duke to end up on the wrong end of the score.
The backcourt of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, much like Duke’s backcourt, is capable of shooting the lights out from three. Unlike Duke’s backcourt, however, both Smith and Siva are better than Duke’s guards at driving to the basket for easy buckets, and neither is the sort of defensive liable that Seth Curry is.
In the post, Gorgui Dieng has developed into a reliable rebounder, defender and scorer. When Duke beat Louisville in the beginning of the season, Dieng was out with an injury. Both teams have improved since then, but adding a post presence to Louisville certainly changes the equation.
The big thing is that Louisville’s defense is among the best in the country. Against menacing defenses, Duke hasn’t shot the ball well and has been prone to turnovers.
The bottom line is that there is a reason that Louisville is the overall No. 1 seed. The road out of the Midwest bracket goes through the Cardinals’ pressure defense and backcourt duo. If the Blue Devils are lucky enough to make it to the Elite Eight, their only reward will be a date with the tournament’s prohibitive favorites.