Duke Basketball: Teams That Blue Devils Want to Avoid in the NCAA Tournament
From the embarrassment of nearly tumbling from the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in two decades, the Duke Blue Devils have rallied all the way back, insinuating themselves into the conversation for a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.
There's no one without warts in this college basketball season, though. Duke has its issues, and any team with issues can stumble across teams capable of exploiting it.
We're going to break down four teams, plus a bonus dark horse candidate, with attributes making them candidates to knock Duke out of national championship contention.
And if you think any of these are absolutely impossible, ponder this one word: Lehigh. As we've all seen, anything can happen under the spotlights of March.
Statistics and rankings accurate through games of March 3. All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription unless noted otherwise.
Yes, Kentucky. The same team that just hocked up a game against lowly South Carolina.
The fact is, UK is that team that nobody's interested in playing in March. No one wants to be in the path of the One-and-Done Express when its stumbling prodigies finally figure out how this college game works.
Following the Wildcats' loss to Florida last month, point guard Andrew Harrison stated a home truth that no Wildcat fan likes to acknowledge. As reported by Kyle Tucker for USA Today, Harrison denied that UK has selfish players, but admitted that many were "trying to get a job." Lingering questions about the NBA are among the myriad reasons that have been posited for Kentucky's inconsistent play.
Coach John Calipari is trying to deflect blame onto himself, judging from his comments on this week's SEC teleconference, reported here by Tucker for the Louisville Courier-Journal. Calipari said, "It’s our job and my job as the head coach to figure out what we have to do, how we have to do it, to get them to play as well as they can possibly play.”
Should Cal figure out the solution to that equation, he still has a team with tremendous size, especially in the backcourt. The inconsistent Quinn Cook and inexperienced ball-handler Rasheed Sulaimon could have serious problems in beating a motivated 6'6" trio of the Harrison twins and James Young.
Inside, Jabari Parker would face a difficult task in getting his buckets on dangerous rim protector Willie Cauley-Stein and bulky Dakari Johnson. Glass cleaners Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee would have their hands full with SEC Player of the Year candidate Julius Randle (10.4 rebounds per game).
Calipari summed up his team on that teleconference when he said, "We're talented enough to do what we want. We could beat anybody in the country, but we’ve also proven we can lose to anybody in the country." The tournament has a way of victimizing teams like that, but others rise above. It's anyone's guess how UK will finish.
Unlike Kentucky, Louisville has a host of players who are battle-tested in the NCAA tournament. A few have been to two Final Fours and several more have national championship rings to prove that experience.
The Cardinals are a team that thrives off of ball pressure, ranking second in the nation at 9.7 steals per game and forcing 17 turnovers per game to rank fourth. (Both rankings according to StatSheet.com.) Four guards—Chris Jones, Russ Smith, Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear—are all nationally ranked in steal percentage by Ken Pomeroy.
Duke hasn't suffered from a turnover epidemic, averaging only 8.7 per game in conference play. Of course, the Devils haven't seen this kind of aggressive pressure in the ACC. Aside from Syracuse, there isn't a single ACC team in Pomeroy's top 100 in defensive turnover percentage.
The point guard situation in Durham has been shaky in recent weeks, and the last thing Cook or Sulaimon or Tyler Thornton will need is to run into prying hands like Smith's or Rozier's.
All three of those Duke guards will draw motivation from terrible efforts in last season's Elite Eight loss to the Cardinals. Smith, however, will draw confidence. And anyone who's seen him play knows that a confident Russ Smith is a dangerous Russ Smith.
Compared to Kentucky and Louisville, Duke's guards would have a much easier time of things against the New Mexico Lobos. A team that only goes about eight deep, the Lobos don't press the ball and aggressively seek turnovers. They can also allow a lot of bombs from deep, giving up 35.6 percent from beyond the arc.
What makes them a threat to Duke lies up front. Forward Cameron Bairstow has gone from a player who never scored 20 points in his first three seasons to a man who averages 20 a game as a senior. He averages nearly 8.5 free throw attempts per game, a number that could prove conservative if he attacks Duke with ferocity.
The Blue Devil frontcourt is thin, both physically and numerically, so foul trouble is dangerous. Syracuse fouled out both Parker and Jefferson, leaving what was essentially a five-guard lineup unless Marshall Plumlee was in the game for defensive purposes.
Speaking of Plumlee's defense, he'll be a major component in containing Bairstow's post counterpart, burly seven-footer Alex Kirk. Kirk is among the nation's best shot-blockers and contributes 8.7 rebounds per night for good measure. He's a large reason that UNM's opponents have shot only 41 percent on two-pointers this season, second in America per Pomeroy.
If Parker can get Bairstow or Kirk into foul trouble, New Mexico will be ripe for the picking. If the opposite occurs, however, Duke's the one on the verge of being upset.
San Diego State
In Duke's first 11 conference games, the Blue Devils were held below 70 points only three times. More recently, Duke hasn't broken 70 in any of its last five games.
That's partially a function of tired legs provoked by the schedule cluster following the North Carolina postponement. Strong defensive opponents deserve a little credit as well, however. Maryland, North Carolina and Syracuse are all ranked 31st or higher in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency standings (free link).
San Diego State can be found ninth on that list. The Aztecs have allowed 70 points to only two opponents all season—Creighton and Air Force. They have no problem playing a game in the 60s or even the 50s, as they did in holding Kansas to a mere 57 points at Allen Fieldhouse in early January.
Offensively, SDSU runs through point guard Xavier Thames, yet another opposing floor general who could make Duke's guards work on both ends. In a 10-game span starting on New Year's Day, Thames averaged 21 PPG while knocking in nearly 42 percent from beyond the arc.
The X-factor in this hypothetical matchup would be sophomore shooting guard Winston Shepard (pictured). At 6'8", Shepard would easily be able to shoot over and post up players like Sulaimon or Andre Dawkins. Those players would also struggle to get their three-point salvos off over Shepard's long arms.
A Blue Devils-Aztecs battle wouldn't be a sexy, up-and-down affair, but the winner would have certainly earned the honor.
Bonus Upset Pick: Green Bay
Pictured here guarding Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky earlier this season, Green Bay center Alec Brown is a legitimate NBA draft prospect. Questions linger about his 235-pound frame and whether he can survive at the next level, but in a game against Duke, the task won't be that difficult.
Not a dominant rebounder, Brown's value will lie in his offensive versatility. Like Kaminsky, Brown is a potential triple threat when matched with slower big men. He's a 47-percent three-point shooter with the ability to take slower men off the dribble as well. Plumlee may not be able to keep Brown in front of him, while the more athletic Jefferson would struggle to contest the Phoenix big man's jumper.
Brown drags big men away from the rim and allows point guard Keifer Sykes to penetrate. Sykes, the Horizon League Player of the Year, is a 20.4-PPG scorer who does his best work in the lane, finishing his drives and drawing contact.
Forwards Jordan Fouse and Greg Mays handle most of the dirty work inside. The 6'7", 220-pound Fouse would be likely to draw the unenviable task of guarding Parker. While Fouse won the Horizon's Defensive Player of the Year honor after averaging 2.2 steals and 1.6 blocks per game, the Horizon has no player close to Parker's caliber.
Duke would be likely to pull away thanks to sheer firepower. But if the Blue Devils' shots aren't falling and some of Alec Brown's are, a Duke-Green Bay matchup would be interesting for a lot longer than most would expect.
For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his new podcast, check out The Back Iron. This week on the podcast: Who's most at risk in a court-storming and why the conference tournament system is broken.