Last week was an important week for the Duke Blue Devils, and it didn’t have anything to do with improving to all-time 15-0 in the Maui Invitational. Last week was important because Duke faced its two toughest opponents of the season thus far and responded by playing its two best games of the year. Michigan and Kansas are undoubtedly teams we are going to be hearing come tournament time as squads that could pose a threat to make deep postseason runs.
I have to be completely honest—I was not at all certain Duke was going to be able to take its fifth Maui title coming into the tournament. This year’s field was one of the deepest and most talented the tournament had ever seen, and I wasn’t sure if this inexperienced team in the midst of its gelling process was ready to knock off ranked opponents on consecutive days. Clearly I was simply worrying too much. This team is truly starting to come into its own, and with a clearer rotation coming into focus, they look significantly more comfortable on the court, regardless of the obstacle they face. For a team that we knew would go through some growing pains at the beginning of this season, Coach K provided his team with an incredibly difficult non-conference schedule. But through all of the difficulties it has faced, this team is finding a way to win, and good teams win close games.
Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves, my fellow Crazies, our toughest test of the year looms ahead when the team travels to Columbus to take on #2 Ohio State tonight. It’s a marquee non-conference game we’ve had circled on our calendar all year, but given that it was so early in the season, I never actually expected this Duke team to be ready to take on the Buckeyes. I always looked at it as a game we’ll view later on as a learning experience, not a game we could use to vault our team into the realm of national title contenders. But here we are, and after two signature wins in paradise last week, I will admit, this team is ready to play Ohio State. I am in no way guaranteeing a victory, but look for this game to be a knockdown, drag-out, heavyweight battle and don’t be surprised if by next Monday we look back on this game, and not North Carolina-Kentucky, as college basketball’s game of the week.
Without further ado, here are the three keys to the Duke-Ohio State matchup:
One of the keys to Duke’s victory over Kansas was fantastic low-post defense from Mason Plumlee. Though on the outside Thomas Robinson’s stat line of 16 points and 15 rebounds looks like a bad omen for Duke’s defense inside, Robinson amassed those 16 points on just 6 of 15 shooting from the field. The Blue Devils will undoubtedly have an even tougher test in Columbus when they have to match up with Preseason All-American and Naismith candidate Jared Sullinger. Mason will have to try and cover one of the nation’s most complete players all over the floor tonight in hopes that he can force a similar shooting performance. I would include rebounding with interior defense as a key, but although rebounding is important, Duke has found ways to win games with no rebounding margin whatsoever. Although conventional basketball wisdom says the team that crashes the boards harder will probably win a given game, Duke has been outrebounded all but once in its last five victories. Ohio State is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, entering the game averaging 40 rebounds per contest, but the real key to this matchup will be taking away easy inside buckets.
In a game where Duke will be collapsing to the interior to key on Sullinger, foul trouble is quite possible. The Blue Devils’ bench, especially the big men on the bench, will need to be ready for anything tonight. Look for Miles Plumlee and Josh Hairston to play crucial stretches to give starters Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee time to rest as they take on the physical Buckeyes. And of course, expect Tyler Thornton to play a huge role. Of course we all remember this shot. With his Thanksgiving feast to look forward to the next day, Ty didn’t just provide us with one helping of clutch—he went back for seconds. But down the stretch against the Jayhwaks, Thornton once again proved to us that he is capable of controlling the tempo of the game and running Duke’s offense effectively in crunch time. Look for him to see significant second half minutes in Columbus.
When can you shoot a lower percentage than your opponents and still win a game? When your shots are worth more than theirs. The case that outside shooting is crucial can be made before nearly every Duke basketball game, but against a big and physical Ohio State team, inside buckets will be that much harder to come by, and getting another 17 and 12 performance from Mason Plumlee seems unlikely. Duke’s shooters will need to be on target from the outside, especially to set the offensive tone early in the game. This has not always been a team that is great at playing from behind, but if they are able to shoot the Buckeyes back on their heels in the game’s opening minutes, we could be in for a wild one in Columbus.
Be sure to tune in tonight at 9:30 to catch a can’t-miss basketball game (and hopefully another Duke victory). Stay Crazie, my friends.