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Defensive matchups define national semifinal

Kyle Singler was assigned to cover quick guards like LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter against Baylor.
Kyle Singler was assigned to cover quick guards like LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter against Baylor.

While there was plenty of joy in the aftermath of Duke’s 78-71 victory over Baylor, allowing the Blue Devils to punch their ticket to the Final Four, there was also one small glimmer of concern.

For the first time in his career, Kyle Singler did not make a field goal.

And while the junior forward’s 0-for-10 shooting day was offset in part by a phenomenal performance from Nolan Smith, conventional wisdom after the game was that Duke needs Singler’s offensive production to advance to the national championship game. After all, coming into last Sunday’s contest, Singler had shouldered the load for the Blue Devils down the stretch in ACC play and had averaged 21 points per game through the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

When asked about his offensive struggles, Singler remained unfazed.

“Against Baylor, I couldn’t find a bucket and was struggling scoring the ball,” Singler said. “But I just had the mindset of doing anything to help the team win. It’s not all about scoring.”

In fact, Singler’s defense in the Baylor game was a key component of Duke’s victory. Bears guard LaceDarius Dunn, who led his team with 22 points—but needed 18 shots to do it—admitted afterward that Singler’s size and length bothered him. The end result was that while Singler’s production suffered on the offensive end, he forced Dunn to work harder and harder, and it showed in the second half when Dunn went only 3-for-9 from the field.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that he thought Singler’s anxiety from guarding Dunn took him out of his offensive game, but the end result—a Blue Devil victory­—still came to pass.

Heading into Saturday, Singler will likely be asked to play a similar role in slowing down an equally impressive foe—West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler. The 6-foot-7 forward, who is too tall for guards and too quick for traditional big men, boasts a similar skill set to Singler in terms of his versatility. When the Blue Devils were eliminated by the Mountaineers in the 2008 NCAA Tournament, Butler was a third option to Joe Alexander and Alex Ruoff, but he has quickly evolved into the go-to guy for the squad this year.

“Butler is one of the best players in the country,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a great player and a clutch player. I mean, there’s nobody who’s hit as many big shots as this kid. Having a guy like him on your team is what every coach would like. He’s a great, great player.”

Butler, who averages more than 17 points and six rebounds per game, hit game-winning shots against Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament and against Georgetown in the final. In addition, the senior showed his ability to get hot quickly, as he made four straight 3-pointers against Kentucky Saturday to put West Virginia in control of that game, which sent the Mountaineers to the Final Four.

Suffice it to say, if Singler gets the primary assignment on Butler, he will have his hands full. It could mean that Duke will have to sacrifice some of his offense in order to slow down one of the most dangerous offensive players in Indianapolis.

“We’re very fortunate to have Da’Sean Butler,” West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said. “When your best player is arguably your best person, without a question your hardest worker, you’re going to be pretty good.”

It is unlikely that Singler will be held without a field goal again, and the game against Baylor could have simply been an aberration that the junior will quickly shake off.

But if Singler’s offensive game was hampered by the fact that he was busy slowing down an explosive scorer, then it is not unreasonable to expect his offensive contributions against West Virginia to be fewer than usual.

However, even if Singler’s stat line is not as glamorous as it normally is, he’ll be fulfilling his top priority—helping the team win. And if Duke advances to Monday to play for a fourth national championship, that’s all that matters.

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