INDIANAPOLIS—There isn’t much more a college basketball fan could hope for in an Elite Eight matchup.
No. 1-seed Louisville and No. 2-seed Duke are the two highest ranked teams left in the tournament—the Cardinals were the overall No. 1 seed and the Blue Devils the No. 6 overall team. Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino are meeting in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1992 and Christian Laettner’s “The Shot.” It’s a rematch of the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis title, a game Duke won 76-71, though Louisville center Gorgui Dieng did not play. And they are two future ACC rivals.
“To have it work out that we’re playing right now against one another, I think it’s great for college basketball,” Krzyzewski said.
But the story of Sunday afternoon’s bout between the two powerhouse programs won’t come down to any of that intrigue. It will come down to the play of the starting backcourts.
When the Blue Devils (30-5) and the Cardinals (32-5) meet at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday, they will each feature one of the best scoring guards in the nation—Seth Curry and Russ Smith—but also start a guard who has struggled to find himself this postseason: Quinn Cook and Peyton Siva.
For Curry and Smith, Sunday night’s game could prove difficult due to health reasons. Curry’s lower leg problems have been well documented this season. The senior guard rarely practices and wears a walking boot in between games.
In the five games that Duke has played with one or zero days of rest between them, Curry has shot a mere 30.2 percent from the floor and 20.0 percent from beyond the arc. Those numbers pale in comparison to the 46.7 and 43.7 percent figures Curry has posted this season.
Smith has been, in his own words, “terribly sick,” this weekend, though that didn’t stop him from matching a career-high 31 points against Oregon in the Sweet 16. While his teammates were trying to catch their breath during timeouts, Smith was “hacking in our faces,” as coach Pitino put it in the postgame press conference.
“I started coughing like crazy during timeouts and at halftime,” Smith said. “I’m on Mucinex, antibiotics and a pill schedule. I’m definitely not 100 [percent] from a conditioning standpoint. That cold is definitely wearing me down a little bit.”
As for Siva, the senior guard has also been a bit ill, though his lackluster NCAA Tournament performance predates the sickness. In his last two games, Siva is shooting just 31.6 percent from the field. Furthermore, his usual 2.07 assist to turnover ratio is just 1.3 during that stretch. Defensively, his steals numbers are down as well.
Cook is having similar issues this postseason. In Duke’s games Cook has made just four field goals in 21 attempts. The nearly 40-percent 3-point shooter has misfired on all eight of his 3-point shots in the Big Dance. Similar to Siva, Cook’s assist to turnover ratio has also plummeted his previous two games.
“Players don’t play well sometimes,” Krzyzewski said. “[Cook]’s played really well this season, and I would expect him to play really well [Sunday] afternoon.”
Illness, injury and struggles aside, there is no questioning the talent these four guards have.
“Although [Cook] may not be playing well right now, and the fact that somebody said that [Curry] hasn’t played well with one day’s rest, we don’t pay any attention to those things,” Pitino said.
The offensive display put on by both Smith and Curry Friday night helps prove what big components of the offense the shooting guards are. Smith’s 18.8 points per game is good for 25.5 percent of what Louisville scores as a team. Curry’s 17.6 is 22.5 percent of Duke’s total output.
Siva and Cook brought out the best in one another back when the two teams met in the Bahamas. Siva scored 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting and came away with six steals. Cook scored 11 of his 15 points in the final 7:46 of the game, and Duke’s final eight points, walking away with tournament most outstanding player honors.
Defensively, Louisville’s calling card this season has been using their guards to pressure opponents in the backcourt to force turnovers and come up with easy transition hoops. The Cardinals force 18.8 turnovers per game, the second most in Division 1. Smith and Siva lead that effort, both averaging more than two steals per game.
“[Smith and Siva] pressure the ball better than anyone in the country,” Cook said. “It starts with defense, and their defense leads to their offense.”
Duke needs their guards at the top of their game to break the pressure and to hit open shots, which helps free the paint up for forward Mason Plumlee. Defensively, the Blue Devils need to be able to clamp down on Smith the way they did against Gary Harris of Michigan State Friday night.
With only one spot in Atlanta up for grabs, the strong guard play of both teams will turn this Elite 8 matchup into a dogfight.
“We know it’s going to be a battle all 40 minutes,” Cook said, “so we just want to fight all 40.”
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