HOUSTON—Small-ball has been Duke's calling card for a little more than a month now. Since Matt Jones joined the starting lineup Feb. 21 against Clemson, the Blue Devils are 9-1, with the sole loss coming against fellow Elite Eight team Notre Dame in the ACC tournament.
With Jones as the starter and Justise Winslow playing the power forward, Duke has scored 77.7 points per game, winning by an average of 16.4 points per game. For the season—including the cupcakes against non-conference opponents—Duke won by an average of just 15.3 points per contest.
As good as small-ball has been to the Blue Devils, that style is about to face its first real test when No. 1 seed Duke does battle with No. 2 seed Gonzaga for the right to travel to Indianapolis for the Final Four.
"In the end, what makes us a national caliber squad is just how big we are and how physical we are," Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. "And we have to do our best to accentuate that tomorrow.”
Big and physical may be an understatement.
Although a talented perimeter player, 6-foot-10 Kyle Wiltjer dwarfs Duke's power forwards. Freshman Domantas Sabonis is imposing in his own right at 6-foot-10, 231 pounds. Above all, Przemek Karnowski practically has his own gravitational pull at 7-foot-1 and 288 pounds. Those are the players the 6-foot-6 Winslow will have to do battle with Sunday evening if Duke decides to stay small.
“We have to see that as an advantage and make it as much of an advantage as we can," Few said of his team's size. "Our power and our physicality on the inside is a huge part of who we are, even though Kevin [Pangos] and Wiltj get a lot of credit for how they shoot it."
That power and physicality is what carried Gonzaga against UCLA Friday night. A team that averages 38.0 rebounds per game, the Bulldogs pulled down 50 against the Bruins, including 18 offensive boards. And that was against a team starting two legitimate big men in 6-foot-9 Kevon Looney and 6-foot-9 Tony Parker. Meanwhile, Duke was out-rebounded by a Utah team that starts 6-foot-7 Chris Reyes at the power forward.
But none of this worries the ever-confident Winslow, who will once again be playing in front of what he estimates to be about 100 family members and friends. Winslow is the first person to commend Wiltjer's talent, but that doesn't mean he isn't confident in his ability to lock down the WCC Newcomer of the Year.
“I’ll handle it just how I’ve handled it throughout the whole season," Winslow said nonchalantly. "Just try to get under him, use my quickness. I think the biggest thing is make him put the ball on the ground. When he’s out there on the perimeter, get under him, run him off the 3-point line. In the post, just try to stay solid. He does have the height advantage—and I’m sure that’s something he’ll try to use to his advantage. I just have to try to play smart and not let him get any early position or get anything easy.”
If his confidence outweighs his performance against the Bulldogs' ferocious frontline, then perhaps it's junior Amile Jefferson who will rise to the occasion. After all, head coach Mike Krzyzewski did toy with the idea of Jefferson starting the second half of Friday's game. A sparkplug for the Blue Devils against Utah, Jefferson was the odd-man out when Jones ascended into the starting lineup. Although slender at 215 pounds, Jefferson at least has the height to bother Wiltjer or Sabonis, as he stands at a full 6-foot-9.
Whether it is Winslow or Jefferson, the bottom line is that it's going to take a full team effort to contain Gozaga's behemoth bigs. As Jones said, "no one guy is going to be able to stop them." And as much of a problem that the Bulldogs present for the Blue Devils, they too will have to adjust to keep up with the quickness of Duke.
It's no secret that Winslow is setting the world on fire with his play in the NCAA tournament, averaging 13.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.7 steals through three games—all in just 31.7 minutes per contest. Although out of sync on Friday, when the trifecta of Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones and Matt Jones are sinking baskets from beyond the arc, it makes it impossible for even teams with the fleetest of feet to contain them.
In the end, Duke's potential advantage by playing small may actually be its best defense against Gonzaga's size.
"I think that it could be the key to the game tomorrow—who’s getting the advantage," Few said. "At the same time, you don’t want to go too far from what got you here."
With the South Regional championship on the line, the two teams now have less than 24 hours to figure out just how to gain that vitally important competitive edge.
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