The Duke Blue Devils, led by Hall of Fame Coach Mike Krzyzewski, return to the Sweet 16 after a two-year hiatus to face a tenacious and experienced Villanova team. Reaching this round never used to be a reason to celebrate in Krzyzewskiville, as the Blue Devils made it at least that far every year from 1998 to 2006. After capturing the ACC championship last weekend and earning a highly contested 74-69 victory over a formidable and talented Texas squad, Krzyzewski commended his team for their commitment and dedication.
“These last two weekends have been so gratifying to me, because it’s a culmination of a lot of work and commitment,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ve been a part of a bunch of championships – ACC, Final Fours, national championships. But to do it with this group feels great.”
After catapulting themselves to a No. 1 ranking, the Blue Devils suffered back to back losses against North Carolina and Boston College that compelled Krzyzewski to bench both of his starting point guards – senior Greg Paulus and sophomore Nolan Smith – and insert freshman defensive specialist Elliot Williams into the starting lineup. Krzyzewski’s move has paid great dividends as Duke has become more athletic and better defensively. In addition, the lineup switch has elevated the play of junior guard John Scheyer, who has averaged over 19 points per game and has connected on close to 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc since transitioning to point guard.
Ultimately, it was the two years that Duke failed to advance past the second round that garnered the attention, the questions from the media and the snickers from Carolina fans. After Saturday’s victory, the Blue Devils have once again regained the attention of college basketball fans, the media and Carolina hecklers, as the Blue Devils advanced to their 10th Sweet 16 in the last 12 years – the most by any school over this time frame.
Tenacious defense, 3-point shooting and versatility have always been the pillars of Duke’s championship-caliber teams. This year’s squad features a lineup where all five players can put the ball on the floor, attack the basket and shoot from the outside.
Although Duke has lacked a dominant post player, such as Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer or Shelden Williams, that has personified past elite Duke squads, the Blue Devils captured the points in the paint battle against Texas.
Duke’s ability to attack the basket, especially junior guard Gerald Henderson who attacks the rim at will, allows the Blue Devils to spread out opponents.
With a plethora of outside shooters including, two starters who average over two made 3-point attempts per game, the Blue Devils could potentially expose Villanova’s weak 3-point defense.
Duke’s depth and experience have also served as tremendous assets. After their victory over Texas, junior forward Lance Thomas, who’s one of three junior starters, commented on the importance of experience and leadership.
“In years past, we didn’t have as many upperclassmen to show us the way” Thomas said. “In my junior class we’ve been through everything. We have been there when things weren’t going well …We’ve learned from it.”
Interior play. During their six losses this season, the Blue Devils have been out-rebounded and outscored in the paint. The failure of 7-foot-1-inch junior center Brian Zoubek to emerge as true interior force after an injury-plagued first two seasons has exposed the Blue Devils at times.
With a pair of 6-foot-8-inch forwards in Thomas and sophomore Kyle Singler, who is more in the mold of a small forward, the Blue Devils often face mismatch problems in the frontcourt. Villanova’s senior forward Dante Cunningham, who dominated the paint against UCLA’s senior forward Alfred Abaya, a future NBA pro, could cause Duke problems in the paint. In addition, Duke’s inability to contain teams who spread them and use their athletic ability to attack the basketball have been a challenge to the Blue Devil’s defensive schemes.
Who to Watch
The trio of Henderson, Scheyer and Singler and combined for 54 of Duke’s 74 points against Texas and are all lethal outside shooters. In its last contest, the three players also connected on six 3-point attempts. The versatility of each could spell problems for the Wildcats.
Henderson’s ability to take his offender off the bounce and finish at the rim could expose Villanova’s lack of a true shot blocking and interior presence. Singler could potentially become the first Blue Devil to lead the team in scoring, rebounds, steals and rebounds. The matchup between Singler and Cunningham should be a very intriguing battle.
With neither team featuring a true frontcourt presence, the battles of the backcourt should take precedence as each team features athletic guards, who shoot well from beyond the arc and attack the basket.
What to Expect
Essentially, Villanova and Duke are mirror images of each other, with both teams featuring disciplined, attacking defenses and high-octane offenses backed by strong backcourt play. The battle between Singler and Cunningham could determine the outcome of the matchup. However, this matchup will ultimately be determined by how well Villanova defends Duke’s 3-point attack. When the Blue Devils are hitting from the outside they are almost impossible to stop, as they proved in their ACC championship victory over Florida State.
If Villanova is able to contain Duke’s three point attack and spread the Blue Devils out on the defensive end, the Wildcats could capture their first victory over Duke since 1955. Unfortunately, even in its convincing victory of UCLA, Villanova has failed to contain teams’ outside shooting. Duke’s ability to attack the basket and prolific outside shooting could prove too much for the Wildcats.
Duke 82 Villanova 80