Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Duke Blue Devils: Who Wins?

Eli Marger@Eli_MargerCorrespondent IApril 10, 2017

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Come on, you know you want to see it.

When Duke started the season ranked at the top of the nation, many wondered if the Blue Devils could be defeated. But Kyrie Irving went down and so did the team as a whole, and now the Blue Devils have two losses and a No. 5 national ranking.

Ohio State has been an unstoppable force. The Buckeyes are undefeated and have beaten opponents by an average of 20 points per game this season. Led by freshman Jared Sullinger, the Buckeyes are now No. 1.

Come the NCAA tournament, both of these teams could very likely be No. 1 seeds. That means that these two powerhouses could meet in the Final Four or even the National Championship.

So who has the edge?

At first glance, it is Ohio State, simply because of their dominance. They seem to have a winning formula, an effective pick-and-roll offense and an elite defense.

But don't count out Duke. Losses to Florida State and St. John's have drained the Devils of much of their sex appeal, but they remain one of college basketball's elite.

Let me break down this matchup.



Ohio State and Duke are very different offensively. Duke is a relatively fast-paced offense, ranking 27th nationally in tempo. But like many Big Ten teams, Ohio State runs a deliberate offense, relying on perimeter pick-and-rolls and a dominant frontcourt.

On a per-game basis, Duke outscores the Ohio State by seven points. But the most interesting difference between these teams is that Duke averages seven more possessions per game. Obviously, this has more to do with the tempo than anything. From an efficiency standpoint, Duke could be scoring much more. However, at their current rates, Duke and Ohio State have almost identical points-per-possession.

Ohio State's offense is ridiculously efficient. That same points-per-possession I just pointed out? Ohio State, at 1.19, ranks second in the nation (Duke is sixth at 1.17). Only seven players get double-digit minutes for the Buckeyes. But three of these players, Jared Sullinger, Jon Diebler and David Lighty, rank third through fifth in the nation in plus-minus.

Any guesses on who's first and second? You got it folks—Duke's Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.

So which offense is better? Well, it's tough to say. Ohio State has seven players who see more than 10 minutes of playing time per game. Each of these players is shooting at least 45 percent from the field. Duke has eight such players, but only five of them shoot at that same rate.

This speaks to each team's offensive philosophy. Duke runs college basketball's version of the spread offense, using lots of motion and spacing to give perimeter players a chance to create off the dribble. As such, there are more contested layups and shots, especially late in possessions.

The Buckeyes, on the other hand, run a "dribble weave" offense, using many picks around the perimeter until a player can find a post-up man, a lane to the hoop or an open perimeter shot. It is usually slow to develop, but very often leads to an efficient shot. Having a dominant inside presence like Sullinger is an invaluable asset to this offense, much as Greg Oden was several years ago.

Now, the question becomes not one of which offense is better, but which team's defense can defend the other team better?



Both of these defenses are very good. Statistically speaking, though, Ohio State's is elite.

The Buckeyes allow a measly 57.8 points per game, fifth in the country. Opponents are only able to score 0.88 points per possession. They rely on creating turnovers, and an astounding one-fourth of opponent possessions end in turnovers. They also dominate the glass, grabbing 71.8 percent of their opponent's misses, good for 15th in the country.

This is due in large (literally) part to Jared Sullinger. He is a rare post player in the sense that he is big and wide—think DeJuan Blair with Paul Millsap's offensive game. Sully has grabbed almost 32 percent of his team's rebounds, an incredible figure. Though he is not a great shot blocker, he is a force to be reckoned with inside.

On the Duke side of things, the Blue Devils are much more human on defense. They do allow only 0.9 points per possession, nearly as good as Ohio State. But what they do better than the Buckeyes is defend the perimeter.

Part of what makes Mike Krzyzewski's system so effective is that he recruits guards that play airtight defense. Guys like Nolan Smith, injured Kyrie Irving and Andre Dawkins work as the antithesis of Duke's offense. If the opponent creates a one-on-one matchup with a Duke guard, Duke wins. Opponents shoot only 40.6 percent against Duke, and an absolutely miserable 22.1 percent from long range.

Again, the teams seem very evenly matched in this regard. Duke is very well-suited to defend Ohio State's slow-paced offense. Ohio State has the defensive awareness to force Duke into bad passes and bad shots, and has the interior firepower to grab the rebounds.

But where Ohio State can excel is post offense. Duke does not have a player who can defend Sullinger. Neither of the Plumlee brothers have the strength to defend him. They have much lankier 245-pound bodies to put on Sullinger's 280.

The perimeter defense of Duke and the ability to create turnovers and grab rebounds of Ohio State are the biggest strength of each team. The real question will be which team can negate the other team's strength better.


The Keys

Now that we've broken down the offense and defense of each team, the keys to the game have become clear.

First off, can Duke slow down Sullinger inside? This will depend on whether or not he is double-teamed. If Coach K chooses to double-team Sully, that will leave the perimeter players wide open. But at the same time, Duke's guards are quick enough to react and force a contested shot. If there is no double team, Sullinger could be fed in the post all day long and keep scoring. Unless Duke's help defense plays out of its mind, a big day would be in store for the OSU big man.

Secondly, are Ohio State's perimeter players good enough to outplay Duke's tough perimeter defense? There will be lots of pick and rolls and passes to create shots, but Ohio State lacks a dynamic guard who can penetrate. If the open lanes to the basket and an open Jared Sullinger are there, the Buckeyes will have no problem on offense. But if Duke plays its usual perimeter defense, Ohio State will need Jon Diebler, William Buford, David Lighty and Aaron Craft to shoot exceptionally well.

And finally, can Duke avoid rushing on offense? Ohio State forces lots of turnovers, and Duke will have to be patient in order to find the right passes and shots. Creating one-on-one matchups for guys like Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and the plethora of backup guards should favor Duke.

Smith is especially good at getting penetration, but Duke's success will depend on his ability to be smart once he does penetrate. He must be weary of Sullinger if he heads to the rim, but also must be careful not to throw it to a Buckeye if he decides to kick it outside.


The Bottom Line

Kansas, Texas and Pittsburgh might be wondering why they were not analyzed in this article. It is not a knock to any of those teams—all of them are elite and could just as easily play for a national title. But Ohio State is dominating everyone right now, and Duke was the preseason favorite. And if Kyrie Irving comes back, it would be a matchup between the nation's two best freshmen.

Who knows who would win this game? If I had to make a pick, I'd say that Duke would win in a very close game, mainly because of their perimeter defense. But as a fan, I would love nothing more this season than to see Ohio State and Duke duke it out for college basketball supremacy.


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