March has arrived.
It’s head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final dance. His final regular season and his final conference tournament have ended. The stakes have never been higher for a talented Duke roster with its sights set on the ultimate prize.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the Blue Devils. They lost the ACC championship game handily to Virginia Tech as poor shooting and a plethora of fouls stunted their win streak. After ending the regular season on a similarly sour note with a home loss to North Carolina, the Blue Devils will be fighting for a different ending.
Cal Stat Fullerton is attempting to write its own fairytale. The Titans punched their ticket to the big dance in the Big West Championship. They narrowly defeated Long Beach State after losing to them in their previous matchup. Led by transfer forward EJ Anosike, Cal State Fullerton will attempt to down the Blue Devils in its toughest game yet. Here are five things to look for in Duke’s first NCAA tournament matchup against Cal State Fullerton.
Live up to the hype
Duke’s last four showings have been disappointing, to say the least. The Blue Devils dropped their regular-season finale against rival North Carolina and failed to close out the ACC tournament championship game against Virginia Tech. For a team that was at one point ranked No. 1 in the country, the losses are discouraging. It has failed to step up in those big moments.
There is no stage quite as big as the tournament. Though this Duke team has the talent to make a deep run, those big-game weaknesses could cause an early exit. While Cal State Fullerton may not have the most impressive resume, they are riding the high of a Big West title. When it mattered most, and a tournament bid was on the line, the Titans’ defense forced a steal as time expired to win by one.
The Blue Devils have had their fair share of close, clutch wins. They beat No. 1 Gonzaga by three in a blockbuster Black Friday matchup, closing out what was a back-and-forth nail-biter. They then, however, lost to Ohio State in their first true road game just four days later. Can Duke live up to its extraordinary expectations, or will the bright lights and pressure catch up to them once again?
Big game for the big men
The Titans are small. With no player on the roster above 6-foot-10 and no starter above 6-foot-8, the Blue Devils carry a serious size advantage. This presents prime matchups in the paint for Paolo Banchero, Mark Williams and Theo John. All three possess the strength and physicality to overpower smaller opponents in the paint. All three have also been game-changers for Duke.
It is no secret that Banchero is good at basketball. The third-team AP All-American is Duke’s leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 17 points and almost eight boards per game. He shows up in tough games, having tallied at least 20 points in four of the Blue Devils’ six losses. He has also been consistent, with only two single-digit scoring showings throughout the season. His understated dominance has led his team to 28 wins. Banchero is a pillar of this Duke team, and will have ample opportunity to feast against the Titans.
Williams’ 7-foot-1 frame will tower over any Cal State Fullerton player on the court. While Banchero might lead the team in boards per game, Williams is the most effective offensive rebounder. This allows him additional opportunities and second-chance points that fuel Duke’s offense. Watch for Williams to control the paint against the Titans.
Both Duke and Cal State Fullerton have been incredibly inconsistent from beyond the arc. The Titans, in their last five games, have either made 11 treys or four treys; nothing in between. The threat of a hot shooting night is always there, and that threat has come to fruition against Duke before. In the ACC tournament championship game, Virginia Tech’s Hunter Cattoor made 7-of-9 shots from beyond the arc en route to his 31-point performance, heavily contributing to the Hokies’ 15-point victory. North Carolina forward Brady Manek knocked down 11-of-20 attempts in two matchups against Duke, burning through the Blue Devils’ perimeter defense.
If someone is going to burn Duke with 3-pointers Friday, it will be senior guard Damari Milstead. The senior made 12 treys throughout the Titans’ three conference tournament games, shooting 60% from beyond the arc. While Milstead had a slower start to his season, he has tallied five 20-point games since early January, demonstrating his growth as a player as the year has progressed. If Milstead gets hot, it could spell disaster for Duke.
The Blue Devils’ sharpshooter has undoubtedly been freshman forward AJ Griffin. He is averaging almost 47% from three, even sinking 6-of-10 in the Carrier Dome when Duke trounced Syracuse in February. Though a steady presence everywhere on the court, his touch is less consistent. He shot 1-for-8 from beyond the arc in the conference championship against Virginia Tech; bad shooting days are natural, but this one was poorly timed for the Blue Devils. Duke plays better when Griffin’s shots go in. Against the Titans, that will be key.
Return of Roach
After moving to the bench in the later part of Duke's season, sophomore guard Jeremy Roach has resurged. He has scored double-digit points in five of his last nine, even leading the team in scoring against Virginia with 15 points off the bench.
Roach’s contributions to the team aren't defined by flashy stat lines. He shows up with consistent ball-sharing and clutch shots. He drained a three with just more than a minute left against Syracuse to put Duke up by two possessions. It was the bucket that ultimately sealed the game and propelled the Blue Devils through the next round.
“[Roach is] doing a good job of hitting his shot,” said Krzyzewski.
The team’s early season defensive strength is no longer the powerhouse that shut down Kentucky and Gonzaga. Their ball pressure and perimeter defense haven’t had that same intensity lately. The man to lead that defensive push? Roach.
“[Roach] puts the best pressure on the ball,” said Krzyzewski. That pressure is exactly the defense that Duke needs to get back to in order to outlast the Titans and make a deep tournament run.
“For us to do well on this tournament, we're going to need Jeremy to do well,” Krzyzewski said.
Fouls plagued the Blue Devils in the ACC championship game, as both Williams and Roach ended with four fouls, which in turn limited their late-game playing time. Three of Roach’s fouls came in the first half, forcing him to play more conservatively to avoid fouling out. Williams faced the same issue in the regular-season loss to Virginia, tallying four fouls with 15 minutes still left to play and would only play for about three more minutes. While Duke still out-rebounded the Cavaliers, Williams’ physicality in the paint is too much of an advantage for the Blue Devils to lose. Duke is at its best when it can utilize its whole roster, and keeping everyone out of foul trouble is the first step.
The Blue Devils are, however, good at getting to the line. They average more than 17 free-throw attempts per game, and make about 73% of those shots. What they have been struggling with is making those shots when it matters most. With just under four minutes to play in the ACC championship game and the Blue Devils trailing by 10, Banchero, Roach, then Banchero again were fouled. Banchero made two of his four shots, while Roach missed both of his. Those four points left on the court would have made Duke’s comeback attempt much more feasible. Instead, the Hokies' lead kept growing.
Efficacy at the line is crucial for the Blue Devils’ offensive production. The boost from the line is the easiest way to either cut a deficit or boost a lead. In a close game, those points can make or break you; the Blue Devils can’t afford for that to be what brings them down.
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