GREENVILLE, S.C.—The second-seeded Blue Devils made the short trip to Greenville, S.C., to take on 15th-seeded Cal State Fullerton. After 20 minutes of action, Duke leads 37-27, but the Titans aren’t going away easily. Here are five of our observations from the opening half.
Roach gets the start
Jeremy Roach opened this contest as Duke’s starting point guard—an honor that has flip-flopped between him and Trevor Keels all season. This is Roach’s first start since the Boston College game back in February. The sophomore guard has played some extremely important minutes off the bench for the Blue Devils over the last several games. His scoring and defensive impact played a huge role in Duke reaching the ACC championship game. Through the first half, Roach saw 18 minutes and posted a nice statline of seven points and two assists.
Avoiding a Kentucky repeat
In Duke’s first NCAA tournament game in 1,083 days, the Blue Devils are attempting to avoid the same brutality as Kentucky’s 15-seed-2-seed upset. Through 20 minutes, they are on the right path. Up by 10, Duke is firing on all cylinders on both ends of the floor. The Blue Devils lost their final home game of the season and the ACC tournament championship, so a loss now would solidify this season as one of let-downs in the biggest moments. To prevent that so far, the team has shot 52% from the floor and 39% from deep, keeping Cal State Fullerton at more than arm's-length.
The obvious story of this first half was the mere 27 points that the Titans scored. The truth behind that number is that Duke played outstanding defense. It showed up in the stat sheet via eight blocks, two steals and allowing 31% shooting from the floor. But what is not seen in the stat sheet is the look of the Blue Devils on the defensive end. Their movement, screen-dodging and overall peskiness were big reasons Cal State Fullerton couldn’t get into a rhythm. Freshman forward Paolo Banchero had an exceptional half defensively, knocking the ball away and staying in front of his defender. When he was not on the floor, his loss was obvious as Duke allowed the Titans to pull within seven points midway through the half.
Rebounding still an issue
Despite the lead at half, it is not all sunshine and happiness for the Blue Devils. Part of the reason Cal State Fullerton was able to hang around to a degree was because Duke was allowing offensive rebounds at an uncomfortable rate. The Titans were able to grab seven offensive rebounds (44% of their total rebounds in the half), which isn’t an egregiously high number, but it certainly has to make head coach Mike Krzyzewski frustrated as this is an issue his team has struggled with all year. Many of Cal State Fullerton’s offensive rebounds were ones that should have Duke defensive rebounds. There’s nothing you can do about the long rebound out to the 3-point arc, but having a 7-footer and a pair of 6-foot-10 players should yield less of an opportunity to opponents.
Player of the half: Paolo Banchero
Banchero was dominant in this first half. Back up to his old tricks, the future-NBA talent nabbed 12 points, four rebounds and two assists in the opening frame, all on over 50% shooting. He was able to knock down a pair of threes early in the half that were a big part of Duke opening up its initial lead. Perhaps most importantly to the direction of this game, Banchero’s defensive prowess was disruptive each minute he was on the floor. The freshman added two blocks to his statline and was able to effectively guard the perimeter and the paint, something NBA scouts will surely be looking for.
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