For all of those haters and “experts” who have been crying from moment the original NCAA Tournament seedings were announced weeks ago (and there were many) that Duke was handed a cakewalk to the Final Four, know this: when the smoke clears, Duke will have absolutely earned their stripes by battling through what has quickly become the most difficult road to a national championship faced by any team in the field.
Yes, you can make the argument that Duke was placed in the “weakest” of the regional brackets to start, and that’s fine, but also recognize that the situation has changed dramatically. After most of the more high-profile teams in the NCAA Tournament were eliminated — including the rest of the No. 1 seeds — the Blue Devils have found themselves in a spot where they would have to beat Baylor, a West Virginia team that has been good enough to win the Big East Tournament and knock out Kentucky, and then what will most likely be a grizzled, determined, equally-well-coached Michigan State team in the National Championship game on Monday night. If you don’t think that is the resume of a legit national champion, you’re either out of your mind or you just can’t get past your blind hate for all things Blue Devils.
And the best part? It is going to happen.
I knew Duke was solid this season, even with their stumbles down the stretch, but I have to admit I was skeptical that they would find themselves in a position where they could potentially play for a championship, let alone win the whole thing. It wasn’t until I watched them take out a frightening Baylor squad last weekend that I really found myself thinking that Duke will be cutting down the nets in Indy.
The job that Coach K has done with this year’s team is nothing short of amazing. After being left with really only two guards following the departures of Gerald Henderson (NBA) and Elliott Williams (transfer to Memphis), Coach K re-tooled his team into a machine that relies heavily on those two guards to set the tone in all facets — Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith are relied on to do most of the heavy lifting on offense as well set the tone for Duke’s defense. Backing up those two in the paint is the four-headed monster of Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas and the Brothers Plumlee who shuttle in an out the game in some fashion on almost every dead ball. The contribution of those bigs cannot be overlooked; while offensively limited, they have turned a “soft” Duke team into a squad that attacks the glass and can make life extraordinarily difficult in the lane for opponents.
Next up to deal with Duke’s inside/outside attack is West Virginia, the team that seems to be the favorite of most fans and experts to win the chip. That’s not a stretch — they’re nasty. The Mountaineers are a huge team (the majority of their core players are in the 6-7 to 6-9 range), who can shoot the basketball (witness their crazy first half against Kentucky when they hit eight threes and zero two-point field goals), who attack the glass on both ends of the court, and who play incredible defense. They’re a brutal out. So how will Duke beat them?
Duke’s attack should start where WVU is weakest right now, at the point guard position. With Truck Bryant almost certainly out, the pressure falls squarely on Joe Mazzula. Mazzula’s tough, but he needs to prove that he can consistently and efficiently handle Duke’s pressure and get his team into their motion offense (and eventually get the ball into Da’Sean Butler‘s hands in a position to score).
After that, Duke’s bigs have to keep the Mountaineers off the glass. This cannot be stressed enough. Bob Huggins‘ team is great at putting up shots and then relentlessly chasing their misses. Zoubek will need to put together back-to-back amazing defensive and rebounding performances to get Duke a title on Monday night.
Finally, and this is obvious, Scheyer and Smith have to shoot well for Duke to win. This is the case for Duke to be able to beat pretty much any quality opponent, but it will be even more important come Saturday night when they are trying to shoot over West Virginia’s suffocating zone.
Once they get past WVU, many of these same rules will be the same for beating Michigan State, and in some cases even moreso. If I’m Butler coach Brad Stevens, I’ve been stressing all week the need to pressure the hell out of the Spartans young PG Korie Lucious, who looked like he was about to fall apart against Tennessee‘s pressure last weekend. I would expect much more of the same for Lucious from Duke on Monday. He is a perceived weakness, and Coach K will look to have his guys attack without mercy.
Both Scheyer and Kyle Singler have struggled offensively at times in this tournament, but they will keep battling — Singler’s shots will undoubtedly start falling Saturday night. If Duke stays on the attack in both games and focuses on owning the glass, they will be celebrating Coach K’s fourth championship late Monday night.