Right in the heart of Tornado Alley, the cyclone that would tear through the status quo of this year’s NCAA Tournament touched down at approximately 8:45 p.m. Saturday. That’s when, at the home of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Northern Iowa’s indomitable Ali Farokhmanesh threw down a lightning bolt that struck dead center into the heart of No. 1 overall seed Kansas’s national title aspirations.
And just as a monster twister leaves nothing but a clear path in its wake, the road to a Final Four appearance suddenly seemed wide open for the Tournament’s remaining three No. 1 seeds—including Duke.
With the first chance to respond, Kentucky eviscerated Wake Forest Saturday evening, steamrolling to a 90-60 victory. Syracuse had the next crack at it against Gonzaga Sunday morning and came through with a dominant 40 minutes, neutering the Bulldogs in a 87-65 rout that was far more lopsided than the final score indicated.
Stacked up in comparison to these superlative performances, Duke’s 68-53 win over California Sunday lacked the panache of those other two blowouts. Duke didn’t have a Wes Johnson-like contribution of 31 points and 14 rebounds as the Orange did Sunday. The Blue Devils’ offensive effort paled in comparison to the overpowering run-and-gun attack that Wall, Cousins and company employed in Kentucky’s demolition of Wake Forest.
But as my colleague Alex Fanaroff would attest, Duke’s failure in passing the weekend “eye test” against its chief competitors in this NCAA Tournament field is irrelevant.
Although statistically, in terms of seeded teams, the Blue Devils have the toughest remaining road to Indianapolis—the South is the only region that can still boast three of its top four seeds in the Sweet 16 field—the individual matchups Duke can expect in Houston fall strongly in its favor, whereas Kentucky and Syracuse may be forced to overcome formidable No. 2 seeds in West Virginia and Kansas State, respectively.
The Blue Devils lucked out when Purdue narrowly squeaked out an overtime victory against Texas A&M in its second round matchup, because the Aggies would have deeply tested Duke on account of their extensive frontline depth and stalwart perimeter defense. Instead, Duke will be matched up against a Boilermaker squad that lacks the scoring punch provided by injured junior star Robbie Hummel and boasts only JaJuan Johnson as a solitary post presence to counter a resurgent Brian Zoubek and the pair of Mason and Miles Plumlee.
But what about the home-court advantage that Baylor could have in a likely Elite Eight showdown with the Blue Devils? Although the potential of a partisan Baylor crowd is often cited by analysts as a factor that could give the upstart Bears an edge, don’t buy into it as a decisive element in a potential matchup between the two teams. As a Houston native and longtime Big 12 basketball observer, I can attest that the concept of Baylor as a school with a loyal basketball following is far from proven.
Despite being a Top 25 team, the Bears were only able to muster one home basketball sellout all season, coming in their final home contest against Texas. Green and Yellow will likely be the predominant color scheme in the Reliant Stadium stands this weekend. But it will take way more than a friendly crowd for Baylor to overcome the Blue Devils because of the very thing that made Duke’s early Tournament play appear so comparatively bland—its relentless focus on the fundamentals.
Duke’s five-turnover game against California was the team’s most blemish-free ballhandling performance all year. In fact, for more than a 30-minute stretch against the Golden Bears, the Blue Devils only committed a single turnover. It’s impossible for opponents to capitalize on mistakes when they are never made in the first place. Duke’s refusal to give away the ball—and the points that invariably result from such turnovers—will play a decisive role in a game against a Baylor team that finished dead last in the Big 12 in turnover margin.
And although Baylor’s athletic forward Ekpe Udoh will pose a significant headache in the paint, I’m hard-pressed to think that the Blue Devils will deviate from their current pattern of dominant rebounding performances. Zoubek stepped up to provide a crucial double-double of 14 points and 13 rebounds against California, and when his standout play is coupled with the frontline depth provided by the Brothers Plumlee and Lance Thomas, Duke should be able to overwhelm the Bears on the boards.
Sticking to the basics might not thrill fans as much as a scintillating John Wall reverse dunk, but Duke fans’ hunger for the sweet taste of a Final Four will be more than satisfied by the Blue Devils’ vanilla approach.
And rest easy, Blue Devil nation. Tornado Alley doesn’t stretch as far south as Houston.
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