Duke faces its toughest test yet in Indianapolis Tuesday as it takes on reigning national champion Kansas. The Blue Zone is here with a player that can make the difference for each side:
Duke: Jaylen Blakes
In Friday’s contest, USC Upstate brought physicality and effort at the tip against Duke, jumping out to a 7-0 lead. Faced with this early adversity, head coach Jon Scheyer searched for a spark off the bench, and wisely turned to Blakes, a sophomore guard hailing from Somerset, N.J. Blakes instantly cranked up the defensive intensity for the Blue Devils, hounding the Spartans all the way up the floor. Blakes’ impact on the game was evident just under seven minutes into the contest, when he had a sweet chase down block that led to a Dereck Lively II slam on the other end, a play that brought Duke the lead and electrified Cameron Indoor Stadium. Blakes ended the night with six points to go along with two steals and the aforementioned swat in his 20 minutes of action. Most importantly, it seemed like the rest of the team fed off his energy, holding USC Upstate to 31 points after that rough early stretch.
What has yet to be seen is how effective Blakes’ tenacity off the bench is in a marquee matchup. Tuesday’s State Farm Champions Classic will certainly provide this answer, as the Blue Devils will look to harness their defensive potential to take down defending national champion Kansas. Blakes will be matched up against more talented guards, ones that likely have no issue handling a full court press and the relentless defense that Blakes plays. Blakes, along with the rest of Duke’s defense, will have to crank it up a notch if they plan to contain a Jayhawk offense that is averaging 85.5 points per game, albeit against lesser competition.
Scheyer certainly values Blakes’ defensive skillset, but it will be extremely beneficial for the Blue Devils if the guard’s offensive output matches his efforts on the other end of the floor. So far this season, Blakes is averaging seven points per game on 57.1% shooting from the field and 75% from beyond the arc. If given a larger role against better competition, it will be interesting to see how this holds up. If Blakes proves he can score when called upon, Scheyer may even be tempted to elevate him to the starting lineup.
Kansas: Gradey Dick
For the Jayhawks, they will continue to rely on their strategy of volume offense in the Champions Classic. One of the engines for this offensive explosion has been highly touted freshman Gradey Dick. Dick entered college as the No. 21 recruit in the country, and he has certainly lived up to the billing thus far. Dick is averaging 17.5 points per game, good for second on his team. The 6-foot-8 freshman from Wichita, Kan., is known for his ability to fill up the basket from behind the arc, and he has proved that early on. Dick is shooting 50% from 3-point land so far this season, contributing to Kansas’s 38.1% rate from downtown as a team. Dick has already posted a 23-point performance against Omaha, and there is no doubt Jayhawk fans would love for him to match or exceed that output Tuesday.
Dick could pose some matchup problems for Duke, as he is one of the taller players in Kansas’ starting lineup despite only being 6-foot-8. His ability to stretch the floor could cause issues for the Blue Devil defense, which is anchored by seven-footers. More than likely, Scheyer will choose a familiar defender for Dick in high school teammate Mark Mitchell. The highly talented Mitchell possesses both the length and speed necessary to hold Dick in check on the perimeter and can easily play the four on offense with this ability to drive to the basket.
Duke will absolutely have to be aware of where Dick is at all times on defense, or things could get ugly fast. The Blue Devils have done a stellar job of guarding the 3-point line so far, but they have not seen a shooter of Dick’s caliber. If Duke allows him to see shots fall early, he could catch fire and shoot the Blue Devils off the floor. His ability combined with his height will most likely see Duke resort to a small ball lineup, most likely with Mitchell manning the power forward position. Dick may have been 1-of-4 from deep last game, but that does not mean Scheyer should discount his ability. Stopping him will prove imperative if the Blue Devils want to come home from Indianapolis with an early-season, resume-building win.
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