Duke finished fifth in the ACC in the regular season at 11-7, but won the tournament title over Notre Dame from Brooklyn on Saturday night. Troy won the Sun Belt title, which gave them a berth to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. They finished in the middle of the pack in the league at 10-8. The winner of this game plays the winner of South Carolina/Marquette on Sunday.
Even though Troy was just an average Sun Belt team, they did win 22 games. They did not play an overwhelming non-conference schedule, but did play USC tight on the road (82-77). They did have 16 road games, winning just six, but at least they are not afraid of playing outside of Alabama. The had won two straight games heading into the Sun Belt Tournament as the sixth seed. They took apart Appalachian State (84-64), Georgia Southern (90-70), Georgia State (74-63), and Texas State (59-53) in the final on Sunday. Jordan Varnado led the Trojans with 18 points and 12 rebounds on 6-of-19 shooting (0-4 3PT). Wesley Person Jr. added 16 points on 4-of-12 shooting. The Trojans shot a miserable 1-of-17 from beyond the arc and 35 percent from the field. The Bobcats shot 41.7 percent from the field, but they turned it over 17 times, while Troy committed just five turnovers.
Varnado (6-6, 215) leads the Trojans in scoring with 16.5 points per game, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks on 52.6 percent shooting. Person adds 14.8 points on 40.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc. They key will be the performance of freshman point guard Kevin Baker, who averages 8.2 points and 3.1 assists with less than two turnovers per game. On the season, the Trojans average 78.4 points per game on 45.7 percent shooting (36.3% 3PT). They allow 71.7 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting (33.5% 3PT).
Even though Duke did not get a number one seed, they could certainly use that as motivation. The Blue Devils did not really click until head coach Mike Krzyzewski (90-32 in 32 NCAA appearances) returned from back surgery in early February. The Blue Devils won seven games in that stretch, but then lost two straight at Miami-Florida and Syracuse in late February. They bounced back to beat Florida State at home by five, but lost their regular-season finale at North Carolina, 90-83. But once again, Coach K got his troops together for the tournament and they beat Clemson (79-72), Louisville (81-77), North Carolina (93-83), and Notre Dame (75-69). They became the first ACC Tournament champion to win four games in four straight days. Freshman forward Jayson Tatum (6-8, 205) led Duke with 19 points and eight rebounds on 7-of-11 shooting. He was sensational in the ACC Tournament, averaging 22 points and 7.5 rebounds. But he was overshadowed by sophomore Luke Kennard, who scored 16 points in the title game and averaged 20 points in four games, earning player of the tournament. On the season, he averages 20.1 points per game and 5.3 rebounds on 50 percent shooting from the field (44.3% 3PT).
Tatum (16 PPG, 7.3 RPG), Amile Jefferson (11.2 PPG, 8.4 APG), and guard Grayson Allen (14.1 PPG, 3.5 APG) are some of the key contributors on this loaded team. Allen has had an up-and-down season, which included a brief suspension and ankle issues. He is shooting just 39 percent from the field and 36 percent from beyond the arc. The Blue Devils average 80.7 points per game and shoot 47.7 percent from the field (37.5% 3PT). They allow 69.8 points per game on 43.3 percent shooting (29.5% 3PT).
Keys to the Game:
- Find a way past the press. Allen and Tatum will be tasked with breaking that Troy press, and will be crucial in getting the Duke offense going.
- Get something from Harry Giles. Although he has been getting better, Duke needs him to be a viable backup to Jefferson.
- Duke needs to start the tournament firing on all cylinders – the advantage Duke has over most teams they play is that the scoring can come from anywhere. If each of their scoring options becomes viable in each and every game Duke is the most dangerous team in the tournament
- Time for Frank Jackson to be more of a ball-handler – PG play is crucial in the tournament and while Jackson has lit up the scoreboard lately his assist numbers are not there. Duke may need him to trigger the offense or else he may have to relinquish that task to junior Grayson Allen who is an assist machine.
- Troy Trojans
- Start strong. Duke is riding high right now so the Trojans need to capitalize and hit them hard right from the tip.
- Outwork Duke inside. There are some question marks regarding the Duke big men at the moment, and Troy must make that potential advantage count.
- Patience, Duke’s man-to-man defense is not as strong as it has been in years past, they are vulnerable to straight-line drives as well as ball screens. Troy has had no problem scoring the basketball this season. If they do what they’ve done all year they can put up numbers against Duke.
Duke is considered by many as the favorite to win the NCAA title. But this is a squad that does not play the best defense and ultimately, that could be their downfall. They should beat Troy, but the Trojans are a scrappy team that will not be intimidated. Playing in South Carolina gives Duke a slight advantage, but it is almost a neutral game for both squads.
Can Duke keep its hot streak going all the way to a national championship? We are not sure but it will least go until Sunday. We cannot see Tatum and Kennard allowing Troy to become another version Lehigh or Mercer. Duke wins, 85-70.