Rush the Court’s Zach Hayes will deliver a breakdown of each Final Four team every day this week. Here are the Butler, West Virginia and Michigan State previews. The final installment discusses the Duke Blue Devils in their quest to return to college basketball glory.
Crucial Tourney Moment(s): Nolan Smith delivered the best game of his Duke career at the most opportune time. Facing a two point deficit late in the second half against an ultra-talented Baylor team playing in their home state, it was a Lance Thomas offensive rebound kicked out to Nolan Smith for an open three that gave Duke the lead and the momentum. Following a free throw and defensive stop, it was once again the vastly improved Smith knocking down a three to hand his Blue Devils an advantage they wouldn’t surrender. Their back against the wall against a team athletically superior and equally talented, Duke teams in the past four years would have folded up their tents, unable to match the size, physicality and fight of their venerable opponent. This year, toughness has been the mark of a Duke squad that finds themselves labeled Final Four favorites. And Nolan Smith’s back-to-back threes against Baylor were a huge reason the Blue Devils are still standing.
Advantage Area: Duke has the best perimeter scoring of any Final Four team. Nolan Smith can knock down outside shots, beat defenders off the dribble and has established a patented floater that’s impossible to defend. Jon Scheyer loves to drive or find open shots off of ball screens and is a marksman both from long range and the charity stripe. Kyle Singler is the hardest player to defend when he establishes position near the basket and loves to utilize a mastered fade-away jumper. Any one of these three can score 25 points on a given night and it’ll be the task of a stellar West Virginia defense to contain two of them and force the pressure on one of Singler, Smith and Scheyer to carry the load. Duke has also shed the notion this season of being soft. Their forwards- Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek and the Plumlee brothers- are tremendous at finding prime rebounding position with the sole purpose of kicking out to an open guard for an unchallenged three. Nobody plays with more intensity than Duke, something you simply could not see in previous seasons.
Potential Downfall: The Blue Devils are not a particularly good man-to-man defensive team. They play defense at an efficient rate as a unit. The guards don’t overextend as much as in past years because there’s size under the basket to disrupt shots, meaning the guards don’t feel as pressured to force turnovers on a constant basis. If Da’Sean Butler or Kevin Jones can get Scheyer or Singler into a one-on-one isolation opportunity on the offensive end, they should be able to draw a foul at the very least because none of the Duke guards are exceptionally quick. The problem is that the Mountaineers offense is based more on cutting and screening than penetration. Duke also relies completely on three players for their scoring. Their forwards and centers are just there to set effective screens and hit the boards with authority. If one of the Big Three gets in foul trouble and the other has a poor shooting night, Duke could be in serious trouble because they’re so dependent on Singler, Scheyer and Smith.
X-Factor: Brian Zoubek has improved over the course of three months more than any player in college basketball. His breakout performance came against Maryland in the middle of ACC play and Big Z certainly has not regressed since then. There might not be a better rebounder in the nation right now, forming quite a rebounding tag team with Lance Thomas and/or Miles Plumlee. Zoubek also operates at a more efficient rate when he gets the ball in the low post and can power his way to the foul line with his 7’2 frame. Prior to this season, Zoubek was an offensive liability that just clogged up space on the floor. Now he’s a vital cog on a Final Four team.
Key Semifinal Matchup: Kyle Singler vs. Devin Ebanks. Duke’s second leading scorer is coming off a regional final performance in which he didn’t make a shot for the first time in his career and had to chase LaceDarius Dunn around the floor for almost 40 minutes. The matchup with Ebanks might be easier defensively but should be quite the task on the offensive end. Ebanks is a superior defender, extremely long and loves to draw charges. If Ebanks frustrates Singler into another off night, it’ll be up to Smith and Scheyer to bail Duke out once again. Ebanks should also look to push Singler further and further away from the basket because he’s not particularly proficient at dribble penetration that far away from the rim. Both of these small forwards love to induce contact and live at the foul line.
Crunch Time Performer: Jon Scheyer is the #1 option late in games for Duke, although Nolan Smith can also provide a clutch shot like he did against Baylor, and Kyle Singler isn’t chopped liver himself. If Scheyer receives a ball screen from Zoubek or Thomas and gains momentum going to his right, he’s almost impossible to stop from either scoring or drawing a foul. He loves to linger around the three-point line when a shot goes up for an offensive rebound and kickback, so even if Smith’s name is called late against West Virginia, Scheyer could still end up with an attempt. Also, if the ball is inbounded under the basket by Scheyer, look for him to receive the ball right back in the corner for a three. Duke runs that play constantly and yet nobody seems to be able to defend it.
Experience: This Duke unit doesn’t possess a plethora of tournament experience. The seniors lost in the first round in 2007, lost in the second round in 2008 and lost in the Sweet 16 in 2009, so none of these players have Final Four experience, a rarity for a Duke roster. I’m pretty sure Mike Krzyzewski has been here before, though. Only Michigan State truly has experience at this stage.
Forecast: Duke is the favorite heading into the Final Four, and for good reason. They’re healthy, efficient on both ends and playing their best basketball at the right time. Jon Scheyer has found his outside stroke just in time for the Final Four and Nolan Smith is also peaking. Even their oft-criticized forwards Thomas and Zoubek have perfected their roles within the Duke game plan. Whether they can contain Da’Sean Butler if the game is tight and rebound as effectively as in previous rounds could be the key to advancing. Many believe the tougher test is Saturday’s contest with the Mountaineers rather than the winner of Butler/Michigan State. I’m not as convinced.
Prediction: Duke hasn’t won a national title since 2001. That seems way too long for a program that’s become the standard bearer of college basketball since the mid 80s. Much like the Yankees finally breaking through at the end of the decade, I see Duke beginning a new era on Monday night. Another banner is hoisted to the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Blue Devils are your 2010 National Champions.