Talkin’ Final Four: Duke v. West Virginia

TIM: John, as you know, I am very happy that Duke is in the Final Four. But there has been a bit of an unintended consequence of the Blue Devils’ advancement this season; namely, did you know that people don’t like Duke? That they actively root against Duke? That they may even–and I can’t believe I’m saying this–hate Duke?

I always considered us rather popular.

JOHN S: You may not be wrong about the popular thing. Yes, people “hate” Duke, but they hate Duke the same way they hate the Yankees, the Lakers, Notre Dame, etc. That is, people hate Duke because they are the team of front-runners, passive followers of the game, and entitled fans. Of course, there are components of race and class in the hatred around Duke, but mainly it comes down to this: Success breeds resentment.

Which is actually why this team presents such a problem to Duke haters. There has certainly been a share of anti-Duke sentiment in the run-up to this Final Four–enough to turn scumbag Bob Huggins into a likable coach–but it really hasn’t been a dominant storyline. I’ve actually seen more articles—like this one and this one and this one–calling out Duke haters for basically being hackneyed and outdated.

Because this team hasn’t been talked about all year, doesn’t have any real national stars, was not a presumptive Final Four team, and doesn’t live and die by the three–in short it doesn’t exhibit the qualities of traditional hated Duke teams.

Part of this is also due to the simple fact that Duke hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2004; there are people in high school who can’t remember the last time Duke won a national championship. Duke hate just doesn’t resonate like it once did.

With that said, if Duke and Butler meet in the championship, I’m sure fans will view it as Good vs. Evil, David vs. Goliath.

TIM: Well, you’ve been looking in the wrong places, my friend. Because I’ve found Duke hate here and here and here and here and here. I mean, this is hate from Terence Moore, John! He occasionally appeared opposite Skip Bayless on Cold Pizza or First Take or whatever! Your defense comes from a cartoon basketball! (Although we in Jersey love Steve Politi—whom I’m 98% sure is Bracket Boy’s alter-ego.) Even Doug Gottlieb went off on Duke, and you know how much I like Doug Gottlieb (even worse, Gottlieb’s critiques seem the most overboard).

It’s strange for me to see these two programs playing against one another in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons because back in 2006, when they both lost difficult Sweet 16 games at the Georgia Dome on the same night, they were my two favorite college basketball teams. Obviously, that changes when you replace the aesthetic beauty of Beilein Ball with the brutal efficiency of Bob Huggins.

Of course, this year’s Duke team plays an awful lot like this year’s Mountaineers. Neither team shoots a very high percentage. Each team possesses precisely one player who can consistently create his own shot (Nolan Smith and Da’Sean Butler). Each team is ranked in the top 10 in offensive rebounding percentage, and they each get a humongous offensive lift from crashing the glass. Each team plays superb defense without applying too much pressure on the perimeter. They really are mirror images in a way I never could have guessed in Atlanta in ’06 or DC in ’08.

A lot of the talk coming into this game from the Duke perspective is about how the Blue Devils will go about handling West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone–the one remnant of the Beilein Era. But John, I’m not even sure we’re going to see that zone for a majority of this game. The Mountaineers stymied Kentucky with it, but everyone knew the best way to beat the Wildcats was to zone them and hope for a bad shooting day. I would not be surprised to see WVU come out in straight-up, mantaman defense with Devin Ebanks on Jon Scheyer. Isn’t that how you would play this if you were Huggins?

JOHN S: There are a couple of reasons for West Virginia to ditch the zone against Duke. For one, Duke is a much better shooting team than Kentucky. There hasn’t been a game yet this Tournament in which Scheyer, Smith, and Kyle Singler were all shooting well from the field, but if there is, doing so could give the zone real problems. Duke also handled Baylor’s 2-3 zone very effectively in the Regional Final. Beilein’s 1-3-1 is certainly more complicated than that, but it’s probably safe to conclude that the Blue Devils won’t be as stymied as the Wildcats were.

The best reason to ditch the zone, though, is exactly what you pointed out: The Mountaineers have a tremendous advantage in length with 6’9 Devin Ebanks guarding 6’5 Scheyer. And if Duke throws a screen, then the Mountaineers can just switch and throw Butler (6’7) or Kevin Jones (6’8) on him. Is Scheyer going to fare so much better against them? And it’s not like these bigger perimeters defenders are going to let Scheyer blow by them.

I imagine Duke will see the zone, but mainly to give the Blue Devils a different look; I’d be pretty surprised if West Viriginia played any less than half the game in man-to-man. This will put pressure on Nolan Smith who is, as you say, Duke’s most reliable threat off the dribble and in the midrange game. He’s also had an excellent Tournament thus far.

Speaking of guys who have had surprisingly good Tournaments, Tim, are you ready to apologize to Joe Mazzulla yet?

TIM: Exactly, the 1-3-1’s holes at the wing and the backline can be exploited by a good three-point shooting day for the Blue Devils or solid offensive rebounding–which is what Kentucky did well before it fell too far behind.

So I envision the Mountaineers sticking Mazzulla on Smith, Ebanks on Scheyer, Butler on Singler, Jones on Zoubek, and Wellington Smith on Thomas. They can switch almost any screen (probably anyone but Smith can cover the Big Three), and Ebanks’ length in the passing lanes can frustrate Scheyer, who hasn’t had to play against someone bigger than him in a long time.

On the other end of the floor, though, the Blue Devils match up pretty well with West Virginia. Singler will be on Butler for much of the game–a rare instance in which Da’Sean is guarded by a bigger defender. Nolan Smith will be on Mazzulla, which means he can sag off a little and help in the lane. Do I need to apologize to Joe? Of course not; on a past blog, I praised what he did against Duke in 2008. But let’s not get carried away by Mazzulla’s performance against Kentucky. Here’s how I imagine John Calipari’s scouting report on Mazzulla: “Don’t guard him. Seriously, John Wall, you don’t really have to guard him. You can try for a steal and all, but otherwise, hang back. He can’t shoot and can’t get past you.” And it’s not a bad scouting report; it’s that there were numerous instances in which Wall and the Wildcats’ defense misinterpreted Mazzulla’s inability to finish in traffic as an inability to finish with no one around him. Look at Mazzulla’s layups; they were almost all on his preferred left side, and they were almost all completely uncontested. I’m still going to be okay with Joe Mazzulla taking three-pointers, and I trust that the Duke defense understands the difference between “Don’t be overzealous with the help defense on him down low because he’s not a great finisher” and “I bet he can’t even make an open layup.”

(Also, how did Joe Mazzulla win East Region MVP? He wasn’t even the Mountaineers’ most valuable player against Kentucky. That would be Da’Sean Butler, who kept them in it by scoring 15 points in an eight-minute stretch late in the first half to completely alter the tone of that game.)

My defensive concern for the Blue Devils is the same one it would be if I were a West Virginia fan: How do you keep the other team off the offensive glass? Which of these two great offensive rebounding teams wins that battle?

JOHN S: That question may be related to West Virginia’s choice over whether to play man or zone. With the Mountaineers in the zone, it ought to leave some room on the glass for Zoubek, Thomas, and Singler to pull in Duke misses. We saw in the Baylor game how crippling those offensive rebounds were to even a strong defense that was limiting Duke to mediocre shooting. Even in man-to-man, though, Brian Zoubek and the Plumlees have a size advantage in the interior. The down side of all the Mountaineers being around the same height is that, while they are big on the perimeter, they are kind of small down low.

On the other end of the court, I expect West Virginia to pull down there share of offensive rebounds. Even against the likes of Demarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson, who both played quite well on the boards, they managed to pull down nine offensive boards. I suspect Duke will limit them, but it may depend on whether Zoubek can stay out of foul trouble. A lot has been said about Duke’s depth inside, and the Plumlees have been solid off the bench, but I’m not as confident than they can out fight the Mountaineers, who will almost always have four good rebounders (and Mazzulla) on the floor.

What’s a little odd about this game is how aberrational the last game of both teams were. Even though both of them won against good opponents, it’s hard to know how much to take from those games. I’m not so sure West Virginia will go an entire half with a two point field goal again, I don’t think they’ll shoot 44% from three again, and, as you say, I don’t think Mazzulla will be able to drive to the basket with such ease. On the other side, I don’t think Kyle Singler will go 0-for-10 from the field, or that the Blue Devils will pull down 22 offensive rebounds. So what, if anything, should we take from these teams’ respective regional finals?

TIM: The most aberrational thing in those two contests may have been West Virginia’s first-half three-point shooting. The Mountaineers are a below average three-point shooting team that takes a higher percentage of its shots beyond the arc than even Duke. And I mentioned last week how good the Blue Devils are at limiting the opposition’s three-point percentage–best in the nation, in fact. So that’s two sources of West Virginia’s offense–Mazzulla and the three-point stripe–that I expect to fall back down tonight.

As for Duke’s offense, I’d be more surprised to see the Blue Devils grab 22 offensive rebounds again than I would be to see Kyle Singler struggle from the field a second consecutive game. My guess is that both teams have focused their week of preparation on defensive rebounding, and that run-outs in transition will be few and far between because all five guys will be crashing defensively. Singler, meanwhile, will be expending a lot of his energy guarding Butler; I expect Nolan Smith to once again be Duke’s most effective offensive player. If he can get Mazzulla in foul trouble, that could negatively affect WVU’s defense (does Ebanks slide over to stop Smith, opening up Scheyer?) and its offense (who brings the ball up? We saw how the Mountaineers struggled against Kentucky’s defense late last week without Mazzulla in the game). And since it’s Duke and Coach K, Joe Mazzulla will definitely be in foul trouble, right? I mean, if we are to believe Doug Gottlieb?

JOHN S: It’s disconcerting, but not really surprising, that Gottlieb said that about Duke. You and I both like him, but he’s certainly given to Duke-bashing at times. This is, after all, the same team that he described as “alarmingly unathletic” earlier in the season.

It’s hard to get clear, just by reading the transcript, exactly what Gottlieb is saying goes on. He says, “I think the prevailing thought is that Krzyzewski picks up the phone and says who is this joker officiating my game.” So does that mean it’s the prevailing thought that referees have, or that it’s a common suspicion that Coach K actually does that? Because if all Gottlieb is saying is that refs are intimidated by Krzyzewski’s status and reputation, then I can get see what he means (even if I disagree). But if he is actually saying that Coach K requests and denies certain refs, then that is a pretty serious and irresponsible accusation.

It’s also worth pointing out, in quasi-defense of Gottlieb, that he doesn’t really say Duke gets all the calls, or even a unfair amount of calls–just that the game is called in a way conducive to their physical style (which, again, doesn’t really make sense, because the team’s style is so different this year). When push comes to shove, that doesn’t really mean much now, since all four teams left are pretty physical.

TIM: Yeah, I got the sense he was trying to hint at something larger without outright saying anything that could potentially get him reprimanded. We talked a few weeks ago about the interaction between coaches and refs, and how negative an impact that could have on games.

Now there’s no question that Duke is a very physical team this season. But it’s not like the Blue Devils haven’t played several games that were called very tightly (Gonzaga and Wake Forest come to mind) that they won easily anyway. And while they’ve won ugly for much of the year, I can’t remember a game that became sloppy because the refs were letting too much go. But if Krzyzewski is wielding his influence on referee advancement, and if the NCAA listens to him or any coach, then that’s a problem.

Before we get into predictions, John, I have three VERY important questions: 1. Do you expect West Virginia to break out the ugly black alternates again tonight? 2. Which Blue Devil fouls Cam Thoroughman the hardest for his comments after the 2008 game? 3. As a fan, how do you feel heading into this game? Excited, anxious, nervous, or copacetic

JOHN S: 1. Well, I don’t really care about what uniforms they wear, but I know it’s important to you, so I’ll answer: Yes, I expect them to wear to those stupid black uniforms again, since they wore them in their win over Kentucky. It’s a shame, though, because even I kind of like their navy ones.

2. This is a tricky one, because you don’t want to lose any of your key big guys, but you don’t want to let Thoroughman leave this game without experience some serious physical torment for his dismissal of Greg Paulus after that game. I mean, who the fuck does that guy think he is? I’d say that this is a good opportunity for Mason Plumlee to assert himself, by proving to the older guys that he’s a team player by thrown Thoroughman to the ground.

3. As a fan, I’m pretty copacetic heading into this game. It’s not that I’m not worried at all about West Virginia–I certainly am. It’s more that I never really saw Duke making it this far, so any additional wins are just gravy. I’ll probably be nervous once the game actually starts, but right now I’m just enjoying being in a Final Four, and seeing a Duke team actually justify its seeding for once.

TIM: The navy and the black are both crap; the black’s just even worse.

Isn’t this where Olek Czyz could have really left his mark at Duke? Is playing the second semester next year for Nevada really worth missing a Final Four appearance and a chance to bodyslam Cam Thoroughman?

And on my own expectations, I’m not quite in full-on Jessie Spano “So excited, so excited, so scared” mode yet. I admit that I leaned more in the “scared” direction last week while this week I’m closer to “excited.” At the same time,  with the way the bracket opened up on the other side now with two 5-seeds playing one another, I’m probably more nervous going into this game because Duke has a legitimate shot to win the title. If that’s Kansas and Syracuse playing in the other semi, I’m thinking, “We got as far as I could have hoped, we can’t win it all, let’s just enjoy this.” I understand that this is unreasonable of me as a fan, but I’ll be pretty bummed if the Blue Devils lose tonight.

So, will they?


This game will, as we said, be a very physical and hard-fought game, and I see it mirroring the Duke-Baylor game in being close throughout. And if West Virginia’s length gives Duke’s shooters extended problems, then the Blue Devils could be in for a rough night.

But I just think too many things broke right for the Mountaineers against Kentucky that I don’t see happening again. I can’t see them shooting so well from outside again; I can’t see Mazzulla having such a great game; I can’t see them holding Duke to as poor a shooting percentage as Kentucky had. Duke may not rebound as well as they did against Baylor, but in general I the boards will be kind of a wash, a lot like how Tennessee and Michigan State fought on the glass so hard only to end relatively even. And if it comes down to shooting, I simply trust Duke more than I fear West Virginia.

So it’ll be close, but the Blue Devils will survive and advance.

TIM: We actually have surprisingly similar takes. You know, we lived through a lot of tough losses during our four years at Duke, John. We lost to LSU, VCU, by 27 at Clemson, by 23 to Villanova, four times at home to UNC…. But I don’t know if any one of those was as singularly disappointing from an effort standpoint as the Blue Devils’ loss to West Virginia in 2008. After that game, I wrote one of my angriest blog posts ever; it probably didn’t go far enough in castigating the lack of effort and/or basketball smarts shown by Duke that Saturday afternoon.

Two years later, I’m picking Duke to beat the Mountaineers because those things aren’t issues anymore. The Blue Devils fight on the boards as well as any team in the country. They welcome the physical play that intimidated them in 2008. They take smart shots, and they play defense as intelligently as they do intensely–which couldn’t always be said in years past.

You stole some of my thunder when you mentioned both the aberrations from these teams’ respective Regional Finals and that you expect the rebounding battle to be a wash. If the latter is true, and I expect it to be, then I like Duke to win. The Blue Devils simply have more ways to score from the perimeter if they have to, and they have three primary offensive options compared to West Virginia’s one (two if you count Ebanks; I don’t). I think the play of Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek, and the Plumlees as finishers down low will be vital; the Mountaineers’ athletic bigs will likely be quick to help if Nolan Smith or Kyle Singler gets into the paint, leaving Duke’s frontline with chances to score that way.

I expect the game to be slightly higher-scoring than most people if only because both teams will get their share of offensive boards. That said, this only means that the winner will get to 70. And in the end, I think that team is Duke, 71-67.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on April 5, 2010 at 10:25 AM

    It’s hard to believe, but I think Zoubs is the key to the championship. When his foul total is low, he rebounds like a madman, plays good D, and passes outside for three pointers. The whole team just seems more physical and in rhythm. I am picking Duke as I think they are better than Butler and I spent a lot of money there.


  2. […] a game John S and I both thought would be tight and fairly low-scoring, the Blue Devils put on an offensive clinic against one of the nation’s best defensive teams. A […]


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