Following Duke's historic ACC tournament title and placement as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament's East region, The Chronicle's Hank Tucker, Sameer Pandhare and Mitchell Gladstone discuss their biggest takeaways from the Blue Devils' busy week and what they are most looking forward to in the Big Dance.
The Blue Devils’ ACC tournament run showed a lot about the kind of team Duke can be when at its best. What was your biggest takeaway from the run the Blue Devils made?
Hank Tucker: My biggest takeaway was that Duke is capable of stringing together enough great games against elite opponents to win a national championship. What the Blue Devils did last week, beating ranked teams three days in a row when all three opponents had to play one fewer game than them, may have been even more difficult than a potential run to the national title would entail.
Duke still probably won’t win the national championship—the odds are against any individual team, especially in a wide open year like this one. But the Blue Devils have as good chance as almost anybody to do it, which I would not have felt comfortable saying a week ago.
Sameer Pandhare: I’d say my biggest takeaway is that Duke seems to be playing with a different level of emotion from early in the season. Multiple players talked about how frustrating the year has been due to injuries and the struggles learning to play together. But the Blue Devils seemed to relish the moment in Brooklyn rather than look overwhelmed by it. Duke’s level of intensity revolves in large part around Allen’s engagement in the game, and seeing Allen healthy at the tournament—despite a scoreless game against Clemson—was certainly a refreshing sight.
It also can’t hurt that the Blue Devils seemed to have settled on a rotation at this point. Freshman Harry Giles looked as good as he has all season during the ACC tournament, and that may have been because he wasn’t fearful of being yanked out of the game as soon as he made a mistake. Giles is another player that seems to feed off the energy in the building and plays best when he wears his emotions on his shoulder.
Mitchell Gladstone: The most crucial thing we saw in Brooklyn was no sign of Duke’s health issues. Two weeks ago, when the Blue Devils lost at Miami, I was worried that they might not be able to turn things around, especially if Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson were going to be at less than 100 percent. But the last week of the regular season hinted at things going in the right direction for the banged-up veterans, with Jefferson putting up his first double-double since December against Florida State and Allen’s solid first half in the regular-season finale at North Carolina.
Both guys were major pieces in Duke’s ACC tournament championship run, and whether Allen comes off the bench or starts going forward—it seems like he will almost be a reserve moving forward—both are leaders for this team and their presence provides experience for a relatively young Blue Devil team.
Coming into the selection show, there was a lot of talk that Duke would be a No. 1 seed. Was the committee's seeding and placement of the Blue Devils fair?
HT: It would have been hard to justify a No. 1 seed with eight losses, including Duke’s worst regular-season defeat in recent memory, a home loss to N.C. State. I have no problem with the Blue Devils’ placement as a No. 2 seed in the East region, but I was confused about Duke’s seeding relative to North Carolina.
The Blue Devils have more top-25 RPI wins than the Tar Heels, more top-50 RPI wins, the same number of sub-100 RPI losses, just one more overall loss with a much more difficult conference schedule and a tie-breaking win in the head-to-head season series on a neutral floor last week. It’s hard for me to see how North Carolina’s resume is any better than Duke’s. I don’t think the Blue Devils should be a top seed, but neither should the Tar Heels—I probably would have given their No. 1 seed to Arizona instead.
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SP: I’m in two minds on this one because I agree with a lot of Hank’s points about Duke’s case to be seeded above North Carolina. Purely on a resume basis, I’m not quite sure how the Blue Devils could fall behind Gonzaga—which spent the majority of conference play feasting on cupcakes.
But like Hank said, Duke’s placement in the bracket seems extremely favorable to me. Being placed in the East regional opens up the possibility of a return to Madison Square Garden, where the Blue Devils have historically played very well. Better yet, the teams in the East with Duke do not seem to offer the recipe needed to match up with the Blue Devils' talent.
MG: For Duke to earn a top seed in one of the four regions certainly would have been reasonable, and I don’t think there could have been many complaints. The Blue Devils made ACC tournament history en route to a championship and have 13 RPI top-50 wins—the most in the nation.
All that said, no team has ever gotten a No. 1 seed with eight losses, and to evaluate one team on four days rather than four months would feel wrong. Duke still got a relatively favorable route to the Elite Eight and will have the luxury of playing close to home for the first weekend and potentially at Madison Square Garden—practically a second home for the Blue Devils—during the regionals.
Duke will head to Greenville, S.C. with a head of steam after its run in Brooklyn last week. Who is the one Blue Devil who you are most interested in seeing this weekend?
HT: Frank Jackson seems to be the Blue Devils’ forgotten scorer but makes some of their biggest plays. The highlight reel of Duke’s ACC tournament run would probably feature some of Luke Kennard’s 3-pointers down the stretch against Louisville, his four-point play against North Carolina, Giles’ alley-oop against the Tar Heels, Jayson Tatum’s block and coast-to-coast layup against Notre Dame and Matt Jones’ triple in the final minute of the championship game.
But Jackson was in the middle of it all, making shots that weren’t quite the biggest plays of the game but Duke in positions to win. His triple from the wing gave the Blue Devils their first lead against North Carolina, and driving layups against both Notre Dame and the Tar Heels put his team in front down the stretch. When he plays well, Duke generally succeeds, and he will need to keep it up in the NCAA tournament.
SP: I’ll go with Tatum here. The freshman has risen to the occasion in the biggest games of the season for the Blue Devils and is coming off one of the great ACC tournament runs in Duke history. With that being said, he does have a tendency to look like he’s going through the motions in the first half of games against lesser opponents. Any Blue Devil fan will tell you that letting lower seeds hang around in opening weekend games is never a good idea, and it will be interesting to see if Tatum can sustain his level of intensity from the opening tip.
Another thing that will be interesting to see for the freshman is the kind of physical condition he’s in. Although the St. Louis native missed the early part of the season with an injury, Tatum has played heavy minutes down the home stretch and will need to play big minutes again in the NCAA tournament.
MG: At this point in the season, the Blue Devils’ six primary contributors are all very much known quantities. But there are still plenty of question marks surrounding Harry Giles. In the ACC tournament semifinal, the freshman big man had arguably his best game of the season—although the highlight was undoubtedly a six-second stretch in which Giles blocked ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson before running the length of the court for a massive alley-oop, his second half as a whole was one of the biggest positives from the entire weekend in Brooklyn.
When Duke captured its 2015 national title, it utilized an eerily similar seven-man rotation. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski brought an athletic defender in Jefferson off the bench along with Allen in the national title game as his starters played heavy minutes. It is hard to foresee the Blue Devils making a deep run with just six guys, but if Giles can build on what he started during the ACC tournament—even if it is just as a rebounder and shot blocker—Duke will likely have too much talent to lose to a majority of teams in the East Region.
Four No. 15 seeds have beaten No. 2 seeds in the last five years. What is one Duke weakness that Troy can take advantage of and is there a recipe for a Trojan upset?
HT: Troy has a pair of versatile 6-foot-6 forwards in Jordan Varnado and Devon Walker that are capable of doing a lot of damage around the basket. Varnado is the team’s leading scorer with 16.5 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting, and Walker shoots 48.1 percent from the field. They are the only two Trojans who have started every game this year, and it they get going downhill on the fast break, they could exploit Duke’s weakness of preventing straight-line drives in transition.
The Blue Devils have had trouble containing similar types of players like Louisville’s Deng Adel this year, and although Varnado and Walker probably aren’t as athletic as he is and haven’t gone up against a swingman like Jayson Tatum this year, they hold the keys to an upset with a similar formula that Louisville used to build a 12-point lead in the first 27 minutes of Thursday’s ACC quarterfinal.
SP: I honestly don’t see any way Troy hangs in this game. Duke’s ability to hurt you with so many perimeter weapons will make life difficult on the Trojans, who will also have to get past the mental-hurdle of being overmatched in every facet of the game. If Troy does keep this one close (again, I’d be shocked) it would probably be because of the Blue Devils’ struggles with dribble-penetration. Duke does not possess an elite shot-blocker at the rim, which can make looking to score in the paint the focus for Troy. But if the Blue Devils are hitting their perimeter jumpers, giving up easy layups to the Trojans may not even matter.
MG: Troy has the ability to score the ball and with the perfect game could push Duke if all three of its double-figure scorers are able to consistently find the bottom of the net Friday night. The Trojans nearly upset then-No. 24 USC in Los Angeles and enter the tournament on a seven-game winning streak having won the Sun Belt tournament and the league’s automatic bid.
That said, I see no possible route for Troy to knock off arguably the hottest team in all of college basketball. The Trojans have no player taller than 6-foot-8 and without a true star like Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum from five years ago, I see the Blue Devils cruising to victory—potentially beating the current 18.5-point spread en route to a stress-free win.
With a win Friday, the Blue Devils would take on the winner of Marquette-South Carolina Sunday. Which of these two teams would be a bigger test for Duke and why?
HT: South Carolina is a very comparable team to Miami on basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s website—the two teams are right next to each in his overall rankings and both have shaky offenses that are rescued by excellent defenses capable of winning games in the 50s and 60s. Duke, of course, struggled with the Hurricanes in both of their meetings this year and lost 55-50 on the road in Coral Gables, Fla. The Blue Devils could be victimized by the same type of game at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, which will likely be full of South Carolina and North Carolina fans there for their team’s matchup Sunday.
Marquette has a high-powered offense, but its calling card is its status as the best 3-point shooting team in the nation. Duke’s best defensive trait has been its ability to run teams off the 3-point line, so I don’t think the Blue Devils should be too worried about the Golden Eagles if that matchup arises.
SP: I’d go the other way here due to Marquette’s ability to stroke it from beyond the arc. Solid perimeter shooting has its way of differentiating teams in March and if the Golden Eagles are hitting tough 3-pointers, they can resemble the team that beat Villanova earlier this season. Although people will gravitate to the backstory in the coaching matchup, the most intriguing part of a potential second-round matchup to be would be how two of the best offenses in the nation plan to stop each other.
Obviously, playing in Greenville against the Gamecocks would be no easy task but South Carolina lacks any sort of a semblance of an offense outside of Thornwell, making them very one-dimensional.
MG: The novelty of a Duke-Marquette matchup in the second would certainly be a fun for Blue Devil fans. A chance to see Steve Wojciechowski opposite his mentor would be an opportunity watch the former Duke player and assistant coach in person as he is one of the candidates to replace Krzyzewski whenever the legendary coach retires. Marquette, however, lacks the talent to take down the Gamecocks in their home state.
And outside of the many stars among Duke and North Carolina’s rosters, I think Gamecock guard Sindarius Thornwell very well may be the most talented player to take the floor in Greenville, S.C. this weekend. The SEC Player of the Year averaged 21.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game as he shot nearly 44 percent from the field. The 6-foot-5 senior will be playing in his first tournament games, but has been at his best against the conference’s top teams—Thornwell had 43 points in two games against Florida, scored 34 of 69 South Carolina points against Kentucky and tallied a season-high 44 in a four-overtime win vs. Alabama. If the Lancaster, S.C., native shows up less than 120 miles from home, he could make the Gamecocks a tough out.