I’ll be the first to admit that my last take of the week—proclaiming Duke would win by 20-plus points against North Carolina in head coach Mike Krzyzewski's final home game—fell flat on its face. I’m nothing if not persistent, though, and I’m back with another take, one that I feel much more resolute in.
While I don’t want to count my chickens before they’ve hatched, there is a decent to good chance that Duke makes the Final Four if it maintains the grit it showed in those last five minutes against Michigan State. When talking about grit, you need to talk about Texas Tech—the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 opponent—and for this reason, I think the Red Raiders have the potential to be the toughest game Duke plays in this tournament and, perhaps, all season.
So, what makes a game tough? This is different for each team, but for the Blue Devils, it’s a tough-to-crack physical defense and an overwhelming amount of pressure.
Take the win against Gonzaga and losses to Virginia and North Carolina, for example. The neutral-site victory against head coach Mark Few’s Bulldogs didn’t have much pressure to it other than an early-season statement win (a win/loss didn’t really have many long-standing implications) and Gonzaga's defense wasn’t an immensely physical one. Very good, but not physical.
Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme have size, sure, but it wasn’t a difference-maker against Duke’s own tall frontcourt of Mark Williams and Paolo Banchero with equal heights and more physical builds. The pair combined for 38 points and 14 rebounds that day.
Contrast this with Duke's defeats at home to the Cavaliers and Tar Heels, in which physical and aggressive defensive play and through-the-roof pressure, respectively, crumbled the Blue Devils’ game.
Against Virginia, the frontcourt of Francisco Caffaro, Kadin Shedrick and Jayden Gardner dominated the paint and consistently blocked attacking channels, amassing 20 total rebounds and creating a wall-like lock around the offensive glass. These same players brought their physical tools on the other end too, tallying a cumulative 41 points and, perplexingly, besting the same frontcourt that shone against Gonzaga. Because of that, the Cavaliers left Durham victorious.
Against North Carolina, it was outwardly expectation and pressure that dissolved the Blue Devils. Of course, Brady Manek shot 50% from deep and Armando Bacot silenced haters from the reverse fixture with a 23-point masterclass, but many of Duke’s failings on March 5 were of its own doing. It was a game it had to win and one in which clinicality was an expectation. When a dominant performance was expected (and optimistically predicted), reality gave us the exact opposite.
What we’re left with are case studies in how a physical defense and abundance of pressure can commandingly topple Duke. Thursday’s clash with Texas Tech promises to provide both.
The Red Raiders are notorious for their defensive acumen and sit seventh nationally in scoring defense, the second-best mark of the 16 teams remaining. They average 3.5 blocks per game, possess a rebounding machine in Kevin Obanor (of Oral Roberts fame in 2021) and hold Marcus Santos-Silva, whose 28 blocks lead the team. On a non-numerical level, they shut down a resilient Notre Dame group late in Sunday's game to advance, nabbing late defensive stop after late defensive stop to book their place in the Sweet 16 for the third time in the last four tournaments.
On Duke’s end, every game has the potential to be Coach K’s last and the final outing for a slew of NBA-bound stars, bringing with it expectations of a deep run. It’s a squad with arguably unmatched talent, and all eyes are on it to bring a sixth national title to Durham and send its legendary coach out with a bang.
Texas Tech is Duke’s litmus test. The Blue Devils' ability to overcome their weaknesses against a team eager to exploit them will be the difference between a potential national title and a third-round exit.
I’m by no means saying the Blue Devils will lose, but I am saying they have serious potential to. If they can beat Texas Tech and do so convincingly, however, they can beat anyone.
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