Well, I guess it’s time to give credit where credit is due; anyone who saw the Louisville-Duke matchup setting up like it is before the season, please step forward. Alright, now that we know which college basketball fans are complete liars, let’s all sit back and enjoy what should be a key game in determining not only the ACC regular season title, but also seeding for the NCAA tournament.
While Duke’s defensive deficiencies could have been foreseen by close observers of college basketball (Duke hasn’t been an especially stout defensive team for the past few years now), the magnitude of their defensive issues has been surprising. The Blue Devils’ 87-75 loss to NC State, in which they allowed the Wolfpack to shoot 10 of 16 from the three-point line while also allowing Mark Gottfried’s bench to shoot 12 of 18 from the floor, was supposed to be the wake-up call. Surely a team with nine McDonald’s All-Americans should be able to improve upon a defensive performance that would make even Mike D’Antoni cringe. And yet, here we are with Duke on two-game losing streak following their first home loss in 42 games. It’s not just that Duke has looked bad on defense the past few games–they’ve been embarrassed. Mark Twain once said that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” which is great news for fans of the Dukies, because the statistics are ugly. Miami shot 67 percent in the second half; reserve Manu Lecomte scored a career-high 23 off the bench. I could go on, but let me skip ahead to the end result: Duke simply doesn’t look like a team that can compete with the best teams in the country on the defensive end.
Juxtaposed to the defensive struggles of Duke is the return of real offense to the Bluegrass state. Chris Jones has looked masterful in running the Louisville offense since his benching following the Cardinals’ loss to Kentucky, twice setting a career-high in assists in the past four games (10 against Wake Forest and 11 in his last game against Virginia Tech). He still takes some less than excellent shots from time to time, but he showed against North Carolina that he has the talent to make any shot he takes. Add in projected lottery-pick Terry Rozier (averaging a team-high 17.4 points per game), and the Louisville backcourt could have a field day against this porous Duke D.
But if you ask me, and I won’t be offended if you don’t, the most intriguing battle to watch in this game is in the frontcourt. Louisville has one of the top defenses in the country (fourth in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings) despite lacking a top of the line center to anchor it. At the other end of the spectrum, Duke has the player most likely to go first overall in June’s NBA draft: Jahlil Okafor. If you haven’t seen Okafor and his beautifully skilled game yet, do yourself a favor and treat yourself this Saturday when he faces off against another future first-rounder, Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell. While Harrell hasn’t lived up to his preseason All-American billing, it was a bit of an unfair distinction to bestow upon a player whose game is a relatively easy one for which to game-plan (assuming you have the requisite bigs to match up with the 6’8 athletic freak). Watching these super-humans go at it will be just as much fun for the fans as the players themselves, but it will take more than just a domination by Okafor for Duke to escape the Yum! Center with a victory. Harrell hasn’t had especially good games when going against bigs of like talent, but Louisville doesn’t need him to be the MVP to win this game.
As long as Louisville’s guards pay attention to the scouting report and get the points they should against the Blue Devil defense, Louisville will continue to show its improvement on the offensive end. On defense, the Cards simply have to hold serve–Duke is showing itself to be a team that has to outscore rather than out-defend the opposition. Barring an explosion from Okafor or a display of three-point shooting yet to be seen against this Louisville defense this year, the Cards should win this one.
*Section Photo credit to Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Jamie Rhodes, USA Today Sports.