Hello, Sweet 16.
Duke handled business in Greenville, S.C., and defeated Michigan State, 85-76 to advance in the NCAA tournament. Solid performances by Paolo Banchero, Mark Williams and Jeremy Roach, as well as a clutch final five minutes, propelled the Blue Devils past the Spartans.
Their path to the Elite Eight, and a date with the winner of Gonzaga-Arkansas, is by no means easy. Duke will have to go through red-hot Texas Tech. Powered by the best defense in the country, the Red Raiders are a fiery three-seed who had 11 ranked opponents this season. They won six of those. Head coach Mark Adams is determined to etch his name into the history books in just his first season, ending head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career in the process. Here are five things to look for as the Blue Devils take on the Red Raiders.
The Blue Devils aren’t in the Carolinas, anymore. Duke is traveling cross-country to San Francisco. Their Sweet 16 matchup against Texas Tech will be played in the Chase Center, home of the Golden State Warriors. The stage is a little bit bigger, and the lights a little bit brighter, than a regular-season contest at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke is no stranger to big stages. With the spotlight on them all season long as head coach Mike Krzyzewski completed his farewell tour, the Blue Devils played in Madison Square Garden in New York and T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. They won both of those games, against Kentucky and Gonzaga, respectively. Both games were close and competitive, but it was Duke’s clutch late-game play that closed out both.
As the Blue Devils advance, the lights only grow brighter. Especially with such a young team, Duke will have to rely on that same resilience and calm demeanor that led to those two top-10 victories. That determination was evident in the win against Michigan State; if it continues, the Blue Devils will be hard to beat.
Spark the offense
The Blue Devils will be facing the first-ranked adjusted defense, according to KenPom. Texas Tech’s opponents average 60.2 points per game, good enough for seventh in the nation. The Red Raiders force 16 turnovers per game with an average 17 points off of turnovers, and rank fourth in field-goal percentage defense.
Duke’s offense has its work cut out for it. In the second round of the tournament, Notre Dame only scored 10 points in the paint against Texas Tech. The paint is Duke’s sweet spot; 44 of its 85 points against Michigan State were scored in the paint. A congested key and closed lanes to the basket impedes the Blue Devils most effective offensive facet.
In order to overcome the Red Raiders, Duke will either need to find a weakness in their field defense or drain their threes. AJ Griffin is coming off of a quiet three-game stretch—the same amount of time between his last two 20-point games—and is due for a hot shooting day. If Griffin's ankle is OK after exiting the Michigan State game and he can get going early, he will take some of the pressure off of the frontcourt to repeatedly penetrate the crowded paint. An effective trey-game will also force Texas Tech to put more pressure on the perimeter, lessening some of the interior defense and opening up a path for Duke to do what it does best.
Back to basics
After a subpar defensive stand in the ACC tournament, Duke returned to the foundations of its defense. These improvements were evident in both of the first two rounds, but especially in the last few minutes against Michigan State. The Blue Devils outscored the Spartans 20-6 in the final five minutes. Those five minutes featured five defensive rebounds, two blocks and a steal. Duke’s defense stepped up and made big plays when it mattered most, and the Blue Devils easily overcame their five-point deficit.
The Duke defense of the ACC tournament would have failed to make those same plays. Last weekend, they demonstrated a new level of grit and persistence, of teamwork and communication, in those final minutes. That was the difference-maker.
Against a dominant defense and capable offense, the Blue Devils once again need to settle down and return to their hard-fought, intense play. The game is sure to be defensive, and even if the Red Raiders don’t feature the most explosive offense, averaging 72 points per game, limiting Texas Tech runs and transition points will be key for Duke to stay in control.
Red Raiders forward Kevin Obanor has been having an electric postseason. He is averaging 13 rebounds per game so far in the tournament, eight more than the five he averaged per game in the regular season. The senior led Oral Roberts’ Cinderella run last season, during which he averaged over 23 points and 11 rebounds per game as his 15-seed team made it to the Sweet 16. Obanor has made it back to that stage, but the team around him looks quite different. Only two Red Raiders average double-digits, and Obanor is not one of the them. Their strength lies in their defense.
Though he might not have put up the same stat lines this season as last, Obanor has retained his tournament productivity. It will be up to Williams and Banchero to beat him out for those rebounds. The task is incredibly doable, as the two have combined for 32 boards over the first two rounds. Where this will matter most is on Duke’s offensive end. The Blue Devils scored 14 second-chance points against the Spartans on 10 offensive rebounds. Kansas, against Texas Tech in the Big 12 championship game, scored five second-chance points. The Red Raiders are incredible at stifling offenses and ending possessions without points on the board. An easy, concrete way to combat that is with those offensive rebounds and second-chance points. That starts with the frontcourt.
Roach has continued his stellar postseason play. He has returned to the starting five, scoring double digits in each tournament game so far. His drives to the basket against Michigan State, a game in which he shot 60% from the field, showed off an intensity and level of skill that Duke desperately needed in that close game.
Perhaps the most underrated, but most important, stat is that he made all seven of his free throws across the two NCAA tournament games. He missed half of his attempts in the ACC championship game. Though it is a small change, those points from the line can be the difference between a trip to the Elite Eight and a trip home. They demonstrate his dependability and consistency, crucial traits for a championship-caliber player and team. Duke’s offense is at its best when the ball runs through Roach and against as stingy a defense as Texas Tech, it will be up to Roach to keep the Blue Devils moving and scoring.
Clutch 3-pointers, consistent free-throws and convincing drives are exactly the type of offensive performance that Duke needs, and Roach can spark that. If his dependable play continues, the entire offense will flow better.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.