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Five things: Duke men's basketball takes center stage against No. 1 Gonzaga

Trevor Keels' performance will be key in the top-five clash.
Trevor Keels' performance will be key in the top-five clash.

So, how good is Duke? The world is about to find out.

Friday, under the lights in Las Vegas, No. 5 Duke will take on No. 1 Gonzaga. The matchup will Duke’s second of the season against a ranked opponent after it knocked off Kentucky in the opener. Gonzaga, on the other hand, is riding the high of its dominant win over No. 2 UCLA Tuesday night. Both Duke and Gonzaga are oozing with talent, potential and anticipation, and Friday’s matchup will feature two great programs, two star freshmen and a whole lot of great basketball. Get excited. Here are five things to look for in the Duke-Gonzaga heavyweight battle. 

The pressure is on

Gonzaga is a powerhouse. The Bulldogs suffered a heart wrenching loss in the national championship game in March to end their hopes of an undefeated season. 

But instead of hanging their heads and wallowing, the Zags came back stronger than ever. They returned junior Drew Timme, the consensus favorite for National Player of the Year  They also brought back Andrew Nembhard, who led the team in scoring against UCLA with 24 points, and added star freshman Chet Holmgren. 

To be the best, you have to beat the best. The Blue Devils will have that opportunity. In head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season, the pressure to win, and win big, is on. Gonzaga will be Duke’s biggest test of perhaps the entire season. 

Associate head coach Jon Scheyer said “we're excited about the opportunity. Our guys, this is part of the reason you come to Duke, to be in games like this. So I can tell you the excitement is there from our end, in a belief for us, we're going into this game to get a win.” 

Diaper dandy domination

The storyline leading up to this game has centered around the battle of the freshmen: Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Gonzaga’s Holmgren. Both players have earned freshman of the week in their respective conferences, and both are projected top picks in the 2022 NBA Draft. 

Holmgren is an undeniable force. The center is averaging 13.2 points per game, along with 6.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. His defensive prowess is no joke; he blocked four shots against UCLA, a talented and tall group. The seven-footer also sank two threes, proving he can do it all. 

“There's not many guys like him, and his ability to impact the game on both ends was very apparent last night in the UCLA game,” Scheyer said on Holmgren. 

For the Blue Devils, Banchero is ready to make his mark coming off his best game of the season. He dropped 28 points against The Citadel, nailing all six of his free throws and going 10-for-19 from the field. The Seattle native also made 25% of the team’s three-pointers of the night, and excelled defensively, recording two steals and a block against the Bulldogs to stall an on-fire Citadel attack. 

Start strong

Duke and Gonzaga have started games in contrasting manners. The Blue Devils tend to start slower—the win over Campbell, in which they trailed at one point by 11, comes to mind. Slow starts have plagued the Blue Devils all season long, as they don’t tend to completely work out the kinks until the second half. This has worked out all right against inferior opponents, but Gonzaga is a different story.

Anyone who tuned into the first half of the Gonzaga-UCLA game was shocked when they saw the score. Within five minutes, the Zags were up by 10. Roughly five minutes later, the lead was 20. Gonzaga’s quick start and early shut-down defense kept UCLA at bay for just long enough to build an insurmountable lead. Even though the Bruins and Zags looked evenly matched throughout the second half, the strong start was too much for UCLA to overcome.

“There's a belief that you can tell they play with, there's a swagger that they play with… I think that was apparent last night watching them, and just how together they play, ” Scheyer said on those impressive opening 10 minutes. 

Scoring punch

One shared strength between the two is offensive efficiency. Duke and Gonzaga are shooting, respectively, 49.1% and 55.6% from the field. They are also both incredibly consistent from the line, with both making over 74%. From outside, the Blue Devils are making 33.6% of their outside shots, while the Bulldogs are making just under 36% of theirs. On paper, the two look fairly evenly matched offensively. 

The question for both is how to stop the other’s high-flying offense. Scheyer, on defending Gonzaga’s offense, said “they're a team who you try to limit their easy baskets as much as possible. In the [UCLA] game, they did a great job pushing on the break, getting easy threes, finishes around the basket, you have to [play good defense] especially in transition.” 

The one issue that has plagued Duke on the offensive end has been its three-point shooting. Against Kentucky, their last formidable opponent, the Blue Devils went 1-for-12, similar to UCLA's performance from outside against Gonzaga. 

The majority of Duke's production has come from inside the paint thanks to lobs to Mark Williams and attacks off the dribble. Hard-fought drives and communication have led the Blue Devil offense, a strategy that could to overcome Gonzaga’s attack. 

Step up and show out

Both teams can depend on multiple players, aside from the one or two who dominate the headlines, to be difference makers. Nembhard is a perfect example of that. While the senior is only averaging just under 10 points a game, he led Gonzaga in scoring against UCLA, shooting an astounding 9-for-13 from the field and 2-of-6 from three. The guard also tallied six assists, five rebounds and three steals. 

But Nembhard isn’t the only Bulldog besides Timme and Holmgren who can affect the game. Sophomore Julian Strawther, senior Rasir Bolton and freshman Nolan Hickman all have scoring and defensive potential. 

On the Blue Devil side, multiple players have shown that they can influence games. Junior captain Wendell Moore Jr. has already recorded a triple double on the season, and almost repeated that feat Monday night against The Citadel with 22 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. Mark Williams has returned to his form from last season, recording 13, 14 and 14 points in his last three games, respectively. Against Lafayette, the center grabbed 15 rebounds, strengthening a Duke weakness. Trevor Keels has already proven that he can perform on the big stage; against Kentucky, the freshman scored 25 points, adding himself to the short list of best freshman debuts under Coach K. 

The need for a supporting cast extends to the defensive end as well.

“We have three guys in Wendell, Jeremy and Trevor to start and then obviously the guys who come in off the bench, but they can really guard the ball. They put great pressure on it, [it] is disciplined pressure where they're not getting beat. And that's unique to have that, to have three guys really that are versatile, that can guard any perimeter player,”  Scheyer said on the strong perimeter defense from Moore, Roach and Keels. 

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