Beats' picks: Will No. 4-seed Duke men's basketball upset Houston, keep dancing past Sweet 16?

Tyrese Proctor holds his form after sinking a three against James Madison.
Tyrese Proctor holds his form after sinking a three against James Madison.

No. 4-seed Duke faces its biggest test of the season Friday night in the NCAA Sweet 16, making the trip to Dallas for a colossal bout with No. 1-seed Houston. The Chronicle’s beat writers are here to predict whether the Blue Devils can keep dancing to the Elite Eight:

Andrew Long: Duke 68-66

A substantial portion of this pick hinges on the fact that I took Duke to the Final Four before this whole tournament started and I don’t want to jump ship. But the reason that I did that in the first place was because I saw (albeit small) flaws in Houston’s game that I think the Blue Devils are equipped better than most to exploit. Plus, Duke is probably playing its best basketball of the year right now and has had a whole week to prepare.

As we saw in the Cougars’ second-round matchup with Texas A&M — an absurd, dramatic, confusing contest in which four Houston starters fouled out — this is a group that suffers from limited depth, in no small part due to a fraught injury situation. Jamal Shead is excellent, but he can be tasked to play a bit of hero-ball when games like that against the Aggies get close. The Cougars also struggle for size and aren’t particularly lethal from downtown, a pair of vices that the Blue Devils don’t struggle with. My key notes will be how Kyle Filipowski deals with head coach Kelvin Sampson’s hard-nosed, physical group and stays out of foul trouble, keeping him in the game for extended stretches to use his skill set down low, and how the backcourt combo of Tyrese Proctor, Jared McCain and Jeremy Roach shoot from deep. If those two things can work out in Duke’s favor, I see a world where it just slides past Houston in Dallas, using its abundance of offensive firepower and increased confidence to book a spot in the Elite Eight.

Rachael Kaplan: Houston 76-69

Houston is my title pick for a reason, and while it may not have looked like an invincible force last Sunday, I think that it will get back on track and continue its run to the Final Four unfettered. The Cougars’ defense is nearly unparalleled — it has only allowed opponents to eclipse 70 points five times this season, and it leads the country in scoring defense with 57.7 points per game. Houston entered overtime against Texas A&M with two of its starters already out of the game and with the other three playing with four fouls; two of the three would foul out in overtime, and the Cougars still won. Duke doesn’t have the depth to do the same, and if it can’t match Houston’s physicality, it can’t win this game. 

Mackenzie Sheehy: Houston 82-67

In their performance against James Madison, the Blue Devils looked like a team capable of standing toe-to-toe with the best squads in the nation. Yet experience has taught me that Duke is seldom capable of having back-to-back performances where everyone fires on all cylinders. I think it’s unlikely that the Blue Devils have a shooting performance like they did against the Dukes given that their opponent boasts one of the best defenses in the country. Houston’s physicality could easily frustrate Duke early on, and if the Blue Devils lose their rhythm, the Cougars will take advantage. Ultimately, I don’t believe this team can compete for 40 minutes of consistent basketball against the likes of Shead and company. In all likelihood, Houston will find itself in the Elite Eight.

Ranjan Jindal: Duke 71-68

I’m going to be honest: There are a range of outcomes here that would not surprise me at all, and I don't really have a feel for how it will go. I think the Blue Devils are playing good basketball right now, and this momentum will be important. Houston is not a terrible matchup for Duke in my opinion, and this should be a pretty slow game. The key factor for me is Filipowski, because he has a clear size advantage but will need to exploit that and be tough on the glass. It’s really going to come down to turnovers for me, as that is how the Cougars generate a lot of the offense. I think they might struggle in the halfcourt, so I have the Blue Devils eking out a close one. 

Dom Fenoglio: Houston 72-70

I think Duke could win this game, I really do. However, the Blue Devils’ chances come down to two things for me. First, if a single starter for Duke gets into foul trouble, can the bench step up against an aggressive, talented and unrelenting Houston team? I think the answer to that question decides whether the game is close, and honestly I can see freshman forward Sean Stewart or junior guard Jaylen Blakes coming up big. However, it's my second key to the game that worries me more. The Blue Devils have won just two games by less than five points this season: Clemson (which they needed a last-second foul call to pull off) and Georgia Tech. While Duke has the playmakers capable of performing in crunch time, experience is what shines through in March. So, will the Blue Devils be able to go shot-for-shot with the Cougars if needed down the stretch? Unfortunately for Duke fans, I think the physicality of Houston paired with the Blue Devils’ lack of close-win experience will allow the Cougars to advance in a nailbiter.

Sophie Levenson: Duke 77-72

I predicted this matchup in my bracket and I chose Houston to win. My opinion has changed. If Duke plays basketball like it did last Sunday night, I don’t see it losing. Yes, Houston is bigger and rougher and older than James Madison was. But the Dukes’ size and tenacity didn’t even begin to get in the way of the Blue Devils, especially because of their perimeter shooting, which allowed them to avoid the bigger guys at the basket. Yes, Shead is among the best guards in the country. So are Proctor, Roach and McCain. And yes, Houston has an insane home-court advantage — this game will tip off in Texas. But the Barclays Center was great heckling practice for Duke, with vocal contingents from all sorts of schools. The main reason I’m choosing the Blue Devils is this: Against Texas A&M, Houston held on and fought not to lose. Duke, on the other hand, won all 40 minutes of its game against the Dukes. Both of these teams are talented and tough, but only one of these teams has indisputably played like a champion.

Jonathan Levitan: Houston 80-73

Duke has one of the most well-rounded rosters in the sport, but the depth of the backcourt is what sets head coach Jon Scheyer’s squad apart from most other great teams. That was on full display against James Madison as McCain, Roach and Proctor alone combined to outscore the Dukes. The best version of these Blue Devils hinges on the production of that trio, now that Caleb Foster’s freshman season is officially over.

Houston, though, happens to be one of a handful of teams left that can give the Duke backcourt a run for its money. It starts and ends with Shead, a consensus First-Team All-American and the best defensive point guard in the game, who will feature in whatever plan Sampson has to slow down the Blue Devils’ guards. The Cougars have gotten to this point by consistently forcing opponents away from their bread and butter; expect them to advance to their third Elite Eight in four years as the younger Blue Devils go down fighting.

Micah Hurewitz: Houston 74-71

Some may look at Houston’s overtime win against Texas A&M as a show of the Cougars’ biggest weaknesses — allowing too many second chances, becoming a bit too physical defensively and lagging behind a good offense in the scoring department. That was my first reaction. But I realized that Houston was able to pull through in the face of the most pressure they had seen from an out-of-conference team since last season’s tournament. Shead, Emanuel Sharp and LJ Cryer hit big shots and J’Wan Roberts added excellent defense all while in foul trouble and Sampson showed again why Houston has been one of the most dominant teams of this decade. Duke will give Houston its biggest defensive test it has had arguably all season with the Blue Devils’ fifth-ranked offense, per KenPom, and a hot backcourt featuring McCain. But Shead and company will likely have the edge on the defensive end and, in spite of the Cougars’ sometimes inefficient shooting, can still string together big baskets down the stretch. We are in for a classic.

Jonathan Levitan

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

Micah Hurewitz

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

Rachael Kaplan profile
Rachael Kaplan | Sports Managing Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Dom Fenoglio | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Sophie Levenson | Sports features editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Mackenzie Sheehy profile
Mackenzie Sheehy | Blue Zone editor

Mackenzie Sheehy is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Sports Editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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