Talkin’ Basketball: Duke vs. Baylor

The last Regional Final will be the most exciting/anxious/nerve-racking one for us here at NPI, as our alma mater takes on upstart and underrated third-seeded Baylor. Tim and John S broke down the game as objectively as they could, although their conclusions might leave you questioning that statement.

JOHN S: Well this is the Elite Eight game we (well, at least we at NPI) have been waiting for: Duke-Baylor. Duke is the last remaining #1 seed and therefore the last hope of this not becoming the first Final Four since 2006, and only the second overall, not to feature a single top seed. Even if the Blue Devils do make it, though, they are not exactly an intimidating 1-seed. Steve Lavin on ESPN yesterday referred to Duke as “the underdogs” (not that I would intentionally give credit to something Lavin says, but just the fact that he could realistically call the third team on the S-curve an “underdog” was a little telling). A lot of people are surely going to take Baylor after the team’s utter dismantling of Saint Mary’s in the Sweet 16.

Duke, on the other hand, is coming off an ugly win over Purdue, in which the Blue Devils turned the ball over a lot, neither team shot more than 40% from the field, and Duke only won by 13 because of a decisive rebound advantage over a team that had lost its best rebounder to injury. Suffice to say, the win did not inspire much confidence. But as UK’s loss illustrated, who’s hot is not necessarily the determining factor in the NCAA Tournament, so let’s take a wide-lens view.

Alright, Tim, what do you think is the most important aspect of this game? Is it how well Jon Scheyer and company can shoot over Baylor’s zone? Is whether or not Ekpe Udoh or Brian Zoubek wins the rebounding battle? Is it whether Duke’s defense can hold Baylor under 44% shooting for the first time in the Tournament? Or is it some other thing, like whether or not Coach K takes his jacket off?

TIM: Well, Brittney Griner has 24 blocks in her last two games, so I really question whether Jasmine Thomas can keep getting to the rim. Oh, we’re talking the men’s game between Duke and Baylor?

(Gee, Tim making a women’s basketball joke. What a surprise.)

I didn’t get to see Baylor’s first-half demolition of Saint Mary’s on television Friday night, so I went back and watched it on March Madness On Demand later in the night. First, it’s always a little weird watching something like that retrospectively because every made shot by Saint Mary’s and every missed Baylor shot is a surprise. Knowing the Bears would be up 29 at intermission, I didn’t expect them to miss a single open shot. There are two possible reactions to that half, though: 1. Baylor played so well that it would have been up big on anybody; 2. Baylor didn’t play all that well and was still up 29 at the half. I tend toward the latter. It’s not like the Gaels didn’t have open looks in that half, and most of the Bears’ threes were clean looks.

I think the most important thing to watch in today’s game is how Duke handles Baylor’s 2-3 zone. Now, I haven’t see enough of the Bears to adequately judge their zone; based on what I have seen, though, it isn’t all that impressive. Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn don’t play that aggressively at the top (reserve A.J. Walton amps up the pressure when he comes in), and the typical slots at the foul line and corner are available against it. It looked on Friday as if a classic overload could exploit that zone for threes in the corner–a preferred spot by both Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler. Of course, those guys have to hit shots, something they haven’t done a lot of lately.

JOHN S: Yeah, this matchup reminds me a lot of the potential Syracuse-Duke matchup that I spent I lot of time thinking about when I thought the Orange were the best team in the country (ah, how naive I was): Even though I thought Syracuse was a better team, I thought Duke matched up particularly well against their zone, with their ability to both make shots and, with development of Brian Zoubek, get rebounds.

And Baylor’s zone is not nearly as intimidating, complex, or impressive as Syracuse’s was, which bodes well for Duke. What doesn’t bode well for Duke, though, is the cold-spell that’s plagued its shooting recently. I keep harping on Jon Scheyer, but for good reason: He didn’t make a single field goal in the first half against Purdue, and at one point had a stretch of 18 consecutive shots missed, covering both the Cal and Purdue games. Luckily, he seemed to break out of it down the stretch but, of course, a lot of that was based on the low expectations he had set; ultimately, he only shot 33% (although he did still manage to pick up 18 points). You have to figure that fatigue from playing so many minutes throughout the season is getting to him–most of his misses are falling short.

Hopefully, the Blue Devils can limit the extent to which they have to rely on making threes by keeping Baylor from shooting like they did in the first half against Saint Mary’s. Duke has basically made it this far on defense, so it needs to keep that up.

TIM: Duke theoretically matches up very well against a 2-3 zone. Zones are generally designed to limit penetration and force teams to hit shots while sacrificing defensive rebounding position, and Duke is a team that can’t really penetrate (outside of Nolan Smith), usually hits shots, and rebounds offensively very well. But in practice, the Blue Devils have been terrible against 2-3 zones over the last few years. They were horrific against Arizona State earlier this season, and Frank Haith’s zone at Miami has given Duke a ton of trouble for years now.(Duke usually ends up winning, but it’s always closer than it should be.)

The Blue Devils have an excellent track record in shutting down three-point shooters this season, which is a far cry from last season’s problems against guys like Jimmy Baron, Jack McClinton, and A.D. Vassallo. Duke, in fact, has been so good against the three that it was disturbing to see Purdue make four trifectas in the first 10 minutes of the second half Friday night. That hadn’t happened to the Duke defense in a long time.

What scares me about Carter and Dunn is that they are guys who, when hot, can make guarded threes. Dunn in particular is a complete scorer who can pull up or blow by you and finish. The two of them were completely taken out of their game in the first round by Sam Houston State’s triangle-and-two. I hope Coach K took some notes on that; it wouldn’t be a bad idea to throw at the Bears for a few possessions here and there if Baylor finds an offensive rhythm. (This is one of those tricky areas where you wonder how much practice time last week was spent prepping for Baylor instead of Purdue.)

Furthermore, the Bears’ frontline can match the Blue Devils with Udoh, Josh Lomers, and Anthony Young (not the 27-game loser). Although I still expect to win the battle on the glass, it will likely be by a negligible margin.

JOHN S: Coach K has flirted with zone defense over the last few years, and a LOT was made about it, but he seems to have gotten away from it this year. Tweety and LaceDarius (I’m not calling them by their surnames because, well, when you have names like Tweety and LaceDarius you can probably figure out who I’m talking about) present an interesting problem, though, because I’m not sure Scheyer can keep up with them if they go to the basket, and because you don’t want to give them to much space to create shots for themselves.

Ultimately, I think Baylor will struggle against Duke’s defense, the best one it has seen since at least the Big 12 Tournament (Baylor is another team that has made it to the Elite Eight without facing a single-digit seed, like West Virginia). The margin for error for both teams will be small: Duke can likely match Baylor shot for shot, and Baylor has guys on the boards who can limit Duke’s advantage there.

TIM: I have a question for you, John: If Duke loses this game, how do you think the program will be viewed? Will this be listed with all the other losses as another example of Duke blowing it in March and not living up to its seed? Or will people understand this as a relatively even matchup?

JOHN S: Well, it obviously depends on who you ask. It also might depend on WHEN you ask. If Duke loses, I doubt that there will be a rash of people the next day saying that was Duke was overseeded and overmatched (although it obviously depends on how the game goes). Most people will realize that this Baylor team is very good, and at least as good as the Butler team that beat Cuse, the Nortern Iowa team that beat Kansas, and the West Virginia team that beat UK. People may make the general point that Duke, like the rest of this year’s top line, wasn’t a dominant team, but it’s hard to disagree with that.

Next year, though, people will probably make the same points about Duke only losing to teams with lower seeds and not making it to a Final Four in however many years. Just look at how last year’s loss was viewed: Even though it was a blowout to a weaker seed, people generally realized that Villanova was as good or better than Duke. This year, though, we heard the same criticisms about Duke underperforming in the Tournament, even though, with the exceptions of 2007 and 2008, Duke has either made the Final Four or lost to a team that made the Final Four in every Tournament since 1997.

TIM: That’s true. I remember thinking before the Villanova game last season that, even with a loss there, Duke couldn’t be criticized for bowing out early. When the Blue Devils ended up falling by 23, I had a feeling the sheer margin of defeat would compel a lot of people to spew the same old “Duke isn’t Duke anymore” crap for another year, which kind of happened.

I fear that if Duke loses today, even if it’s close, a lot of people will prattle on about how the program keeps failing every March.

JOHN S: I’ll let you go first, though: Who ya got?

TIM: I feel like a broken record, but the game will come down to two very obvious things: who controls tempo and who makes shots.

Duke wants to play this game in the 50s and 60s, Baylor in the 70s and 80s. Scheyer and Carter are both experienced senior point guards, but I give the slight edge to Jon because he’s played in big games throughout his career and because he’ll only be pressured into speeding the game up when Walton is extending the zone closer to halfcourt.

As for shots, well, I’ll use the same logic I used for the game I got right yesterday between Butler and Kansas State. I think Baylor has played its best game of the Tournament, and I don’t think Duke has.

The Blue Devils survive…barely.

JOHN S: I’m not so sure tempo is as important in this game. Yes, Duke wants to keep it lower scoring, but if it does get out to the 70s and 80s, that could just mean that the Blue Devils are shooting better than they have up until now in the Tournament. In other words, Duke isn’t afraid of a shootout the way some other teams in this Tournament are, since they do have the pieces for a high scoring affair.

Of course, Duke still needs to not shoot early in the shot-clock, force the Bears to take contested shots in the halfcourt and hope that Scheyer doesn’t miss 18 consecutive field goals again. Part of me is inclined to buy into the logic of “we’ve seen the best from Baylor, but we haven’t seen the best from Duke.” The only problem is that, for the last four or five years, Duke has never really had a game in the Tournament where they’ve played at their best. Hopefully that’s just because they haven’t advanced far enough to get a team, like Baylor, that really forces them to play that way.

Like you, I expect this to be close (but hopefully not too close, but Baylor coach Scott Drew has a perfect family heirloom for a last second shot), but I expect Duke to prevail.

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