PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Two of the best academic schools in the country will meet with a Sweet 16 spot on the line Saturday afternoon. One was expected to be here—the other one, not so much.
Fourth-seeded Duke will take on 12th-seeded Yale at 2:40 p.m. at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The teams met earlier this season in Durham—an 80-61 Blue Devil victory—but much has changed since then for both squads, and the Bulldogs enter the Round of 32 for the first time riding a wave of momentum.
Making its first postseason appearance since 1962, Yale upset fifth-seeded Baylor 79-75 Thursday for its first-ever NCAA tournament win. Fueled by sophomore guard Makai Mason’s career-high 31 points, the Bulldogs shot 53.1 percent from the floor and controlled the game for nearly the full 40 minutes to hold off a late rally by the Bears.
“They’re not just good, but they’re good together,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That’s the best way to be good because then you know there’s another person, other people on the court who have done it at a high level with you.”
One of Yale’s biggest strengths is its rebounding ability. The Bulldogs (23-6) average 40.2 rebounds—including 13.3 offensive boards—per game this season, producing a plus-10.8 rebounding margin that ranks second in the country, led by twin towers in Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears and first-team All-Ivy League selection Brandon Sherrod.
For a Duke team that has struggled on the glass in most of its losses this season and ranks 209th in the nation by allowing opponents to grab 36.4 rebounds per game, staying competitive on the glass will be crucial. The Blue Devils (24-10) enjoyed a 40-34 edge Thursday against a smaller UNC-Wilmington team, but center Marshall Plumlee will have his hands full with Sears and Sherrod down low Saturday.
“That’s definitely a point of emphasis for us, being that rebounding is a weak point for our team,” freshman Brandon Ingram said. “[We need] a sense of urgency going into that game, just knowing that we have to offensive rebound and defensive rebound.”
When Yale came to Cameron Indoor Stadium Nov. 25, the teams battled to a 37-37 draw on the boards, but senior captain Amile Jefferson—who suffered a season-ending foot fracture in practice Dec. 12—accounted for 12 of those rebounds. The Bulldogs scored the first nine points of that game before Duke found its footing, switching to a 1-3-1 zone that gave Yale fits.
The Bulldogs are also without one of their starters from that first meeting. Captain Jack Montague averaged 9.7 points per game for Yale—and scored 11 points in the loss to the Blue Devils—but was expelled from the university in February after a panel ruled he was guilty of sexual misconduct, a ruling the senior disputes.
“They’re a completely different team since then,” Duke sophomore Grayson Allen said. “And we’ve grown as well, too. That game was almost like two different teams playing, and so we have to look at what we’ve done recently.”
What both teams have done recently is rely on excellent guard play to carry their offenses. Mason has been the leading scorer in both the Bulldogs’ upset against Baylor and their 71-55 defeat of Columbia to clinch the Ivy League Championship, in which the Greenfield, Mass., native scored 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting from the floor.
The Blue Devils have heavily relied on Allen and Ingram to spark their offense and create opportunities. Allen endured a 4-for-12 afternoon against the Seahawks, but still came away with 23 points thanks to a 15-of-17 performance at the free-throw line. Ingram—the ACC Freshman of the Year—finished just shy of a double-double in his NCAA tournament debut, scoring 20 points to go with his nine rebounds, an area of his game he has improved in Jefferson's absence and must be on full display Saturday.
“We have two of the most talented players in the country in Brandon [Ingram] and Grayson [Allen],” Krzyzewski said. “We try to give [them] a chance to be players and not over-systemizing it, and it’s worked, where they make good plays.”
The winner of Saturday's game will play Thursday in the West Regional semifinals in Anaheim, Calif.
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