No. 6 Duke vs. No. 4 Arizona is more than just a matchup of freshmen

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — No. 6 Duke got the win they were supposed to get and they did it the way they were supposed to do it.

Freshman phenom Jabari Parker finished with 27 points on 9-for-12 shooting while adding eight boards as the Blue Devils overcame a slow start to knock off Alabama 74-64 and advance to the finals of the Preseason NIT. Parker is only the third freshman in the last decade to score at least 20 points in his team’s first seven games. The other two were Kevin Durant and Eric Gordon. Impressive company.

It took a couple of minutes for the Blue Devils to finally wake up, but once they did, they turned a 12-5 deficit into a 46-28 lead in the blink of an eye. Alabama threw a press at Duke in the second half, whittling the lead down to six at one point, but they never got any closer than that. Freshman Matt Jones, who has struggled a bit early on this season, hit a pair of threes midway through the first half to help kick start the Blue Devil’s run while it was Quinn Cook that hit some big shots down the stretch. Jones finished with 13 points and Cook chipped in with 17, production Duke desperately needed due to the foul trouble that Rodney Hood found himself in. He finished the night with just 21 minutes.

“When a run happens and a team doesn’t fold is spectacular,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “A lot of teams, in that situation, would lose the game. I’m very, very proud of my team.”

While none of the writers on press row will admit it publicly, this is the outcome we were all rooting for.

Because now, on Friday afternoon at the Garden, we’ll get a chance to see those very Blue Devils go up against No. 4 Arizona, who made a sterling comeback of their own on Wednesday night.

The game will be billed as a matchup between Parker and his fellow freshmen Aaron Gordon, which is to say anyone that buys into that tired story line will be doing the game a disservice. That’s lazy. There’s so much more to discuss that simply naming the two star freshmen.

Duke is not a big basketball team. In fact, when their best team is on the floor, Duke is as small as any nationally relevant team in the country, as they have been using three guards along with Hood at the four and Parker at the five. There aren’t many teams out there that are capable of fielding a team that can matchup with that array of perimeter talent, but Arizona can. The Wildcats have the ability to be an absolutely stalwart defensive team, and they may have the most versatile roster in the country. If Sean Miller so pleases, he can run Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson out there with T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson and Gabe York and be satisfied knowing that he won’t be breaking out of his rotation to go small enough to matchup with Duke.

Getting Arizona to go small will be a key for the Blue Devils because they won’t have an answer for Kaleb Tarczewski or Brandon Ashley in the paint. Tarczewski played a phenomenal second half against Drexel, dominating the low block and scoring every time he got a touch and Drexel neglected to double-team him. He did so despite playing a miserable first half, something that wouldn’t have happened in past years. Duke doesn’t have anyone that can guard Tarczewski down low. Not Josh Hairston, no Marshall Plumlee and not Amile Jefferson. Would they be willing to risk playing Parker on Tarczewski in the post if Arizona doesn’t go small? What happens to the Blue Devils if Parker gets into foul trouble?

Who will be the first coach to be forced to make a change? Will Coach K go big before Miller goes small?

That’s not the only fascinating part of this matchup.

Duke is one of the best offensive teams in the country, ranking first in offensive efficiency on Kenpom. Arizona’s strength is on the defensive end of the floor. Duke can push tempo with the best of them, but will they want to against an Arizona team who can struggle running half court offense? Will it matter given the fact that Duke has been as bad defensively as any of the teams that Coach K has had in his career?

With the exception of the couple of poor souls that made it all the way to the Garden in their Drexel and Alabama gear, everyone in that arena was hoping to see Duke and Arizona advance to the final.

We got what we wanted: another early season, neutral court, top ten tilt.

That’s awesome, and not simply because of the two freshmen on the floor.

How Duke’s porous defense stacks up historically with past title winners

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For the last three years, Duke’s issues on the defensive side of the ball have been constant and pervasive.

Whether it’s their issues defending on the perimeter, or the problems they have dealing with ball-screens, or the freedom of movement rule changes inhibiting their ability to get out and pressure in the half court, the truth is that Mike Krzyzewski’s program has become synonymous with highlight reel offense and matador defense.

Since 2011, only two Duke teams have finished in the top 45 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and only one of those teams finished in the top 25. That was in 2015, when the Blue Devils went from being a mess on that end of the floor in January to the 37th-best defensive at the start of the NCAA tournament to national champions after playing defense at a level that would set records if it lasted for the entirety of a season.

The question this year is whether or not Duke will be capable of pulling off a similar turnaround in March, which made me wonder: How unique was Duke’s 2015 national title? Have we seen a team that struggled as much as they did defensively win a national title before? How many times have teams been able to fix their flaws by getting hot for six games in March?

I went back and looked at the offensive and defensive efficiency rankings for every Final Four team in the KenPom era, both after the tournament came to an end and prior to the start of the dance. The numbers that come before the start of the tournament are the most interesting to me, because teams making a run through the dance are going to see a significant chance in their rankings as they best good teams.

The numbers used in here are where each team ranks nationally. KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margins – what he uses to rank teams – cannot be compared across seasons. KenPom’s database dates back to the 2001-2002 season.

Here’s what I found:

1. NO CHAMPION HAS PLAYED WORSE DEFENSE THAN 2009 NORTH CAROLINA

North Carolina’s 2009 title team had the lowest defensive efficiency ranking of the KenPom era. They entered the NCAA tournament ranked 39th nationally, two spots worse than where the 2015 Duke team.

The 2014 UConn team that won the national title on the back of Shabazz Napier was the worst offensive team of the KenPom era to win a title, entering the tournament ranked 58th.  In fact, that 2014 UConn team was ranked lower than 2010 Butler, which is the only other team ranked outside the top 45 in offensive efficiency to get to the national title game.

Defense may win championships, but in college hoops, the average ranking for teams getting to the national title game – and for teams winning the national title – was higher in offensive efficiency than in defensive efficiency.

2. DUKE WOULD BE THE WORST DEFENSIVE TEAM TO GET TO THE TITLE GAME

Duke currently ranks 72nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. The only team to rank that low defensively was Butler in 2011, but that was also a weird year in the NCAA tournament. No. 3 seed UConn, No. 4 seed Kentucky, No. 8 seed Butler and No. 11 seed VCU all reached the Final Four; VCU made it after starting the tournament off in the First Four.

Butler got out of the first weekend that year thanks to what might be the weirdest finish to a game in NCAA tournament history. They handled good Wisconsin and Florida teams to get to the Final Four, where the Bulldogs faced off with VCU – by far the worst team to get to the Final Four in the KenPom era – before losing to UConn in the title game.

The only other team to rank outside of the top 40 defensively was Trey Burke’s 2013 Michigan team. They were 66th entering the tournament:

For comparison’s sake, UConn’s 2014 title is the only time a team outside of the top 50 offensively reached the title game. Only four other teams, all runner-ups, got to a title game ranked outside the top 25 in offensive efficiency, and the only other title team to rank outside the top 20 in offensive efficiency was UConn in 2011:

3. TO WIN A TITLE, YOU MUST BE ELITE AT SOMETHING OR HAVE A SUPERSTAR

Of the 16 national champions in the KenPom era, 75 percent of them ranked in the top 10 of either offensive or defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament.

The four that didn’t:

Syracuse was led by Carmelo Anthony in 2003. Florida has Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer in 2006 and went on to repeat with that same core of players the next year. UConn has Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier in 2011 and 2014, respectively.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Jalen Brunson is making up ground

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1. TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: Trae Young is the runaway favorite for National Player of the Year. At this point, if he doesn’t win the award, something crazy will have to happen.

So I’ll be using this space simply to take a look at my favorite part of the way that the players on this list play. Here is a look at the way that Young was able to create space to his threes off against TCU. Like Steph Curry, Young is short, doesn’t get all that much elevation when he shoots and a relatively low release-point. But quick feet, a super-quick release, ridiculous range and an innate ability to stay on-balance lets him do things like this:

(Some of these shots are insanely difficult.)

2. JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova: Brunson has added a new wrinkle to his game this season, as he is now being allowed to post up with more impunity. This creates a nightmare scenario for opponents. He is simply too good and too big for just about any point guard to stop on the block, but you cannot send an extra defender because double-teaming one of the best point guards in the country is just not doable, not when he is surrounded by four knock-down shooters.

Here’s a breakdown of why this makes Villanova that much more dangerous.

3. MARVIN BAGLEY III, Duke: The debate over whether or not Bagley is better than Ayton is going to rage all season long. Personally, I think that Ayton is a better prospect that Bagley largely because I think he has an easier fit defensively at the next level. Right now, however, Ayton is probably a marginally better defender while Bagley is a better offensive weapon.

But Bagley is clearly the leader in terms of the Player of the Year race for the simple fact that he has won games on his own by simply being absolutely dominant in the paint.

4. DEANDRE AYTON, Arizona: See above.

5. KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech: For my money, four of the spots for first-team all-american are more or less locked in: Young, Brunson, Bagley and Ayton. There is a lot of season left to play, but right now those four have a solid lead on the field.

My favorite subplot of the race for the Big 12 title is that each of the four teams at the top of the conference are led by point guards that have a real shot at being first-team all-americans. Young, obviously, is going to be there. But the fifth-spot is race between Evans, Devonte’ Graham and Jevon Carter. A week ago I thought Carter was the pick. After seeing what Evans did down the stretch in a win over the Mountaineers over the weekend, I’m now leaning his way. But Graham, who has been terrific all season long, was good down the stretch in a win at West Virginia.

6. DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas
7. JEVON CARTER, West Virginia
8. TRA HOLDER, Arizona State
9. KEITA BATES-DIOP, Ohio State
10. TREVON BLUIETT, Xavier

ALSO CONSIDERED: MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova; JOCK LANDALE, Saint Mary’s; DAKOTA MATHIAS, Purdue; YANTE MATEN, Georgia; LUKE MAYE, North Carolina; SHAKE MILTON, SMU; JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota;  DESI RODRIGUEZ, Seton Hall; LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State; KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton; ALLONZO TRIER, Arizona

VIDEO: Providence coach Ed Cooley always needs a mic

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On Friday night at DePaul, Providence head coach Ed Cooley allowed himself to be mic’d up for a TV broadcast, and things got interesting.

Around the 36 second mark, Cooley starts talking about … vampires and bats and dracula?

Then robbing banks and saying thank you?

I don’t know. Just watch.

VIDEO: Kansas celebrates in locker room after West Virginia win

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After coming from 16 points down to knock off No. 6 West Virginia in Morgantown on Monday night, Kansas had themselves some fun in the visitor’s locker room.

I’m not exactly sure what is happening here, but I do know Devonte’ Graham is having a hell of a time.

COLUMN: Kansas is back on top in the Big 12

My only question … where is Billy Preston’s shirt? He didn’t even play:

No. 10 Kansas overcomes deficits and its own issues to win at No. 6 West Virginia

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It’s hard to look at Kansas – the roster, the stats, the resume and all that comes with it – and not conclude this is the most vulnerable squad the Jayhawks have fielded since its current domination of the Big 12 began in 2005. The flaws are apparent, and they’re serious. They could easily be enough to sink the Jayhawks in an unforgiving conference.

It also could just be business as usual for Bill Self’s program

Tenth-ranked Kansas sputtered and struggled Monday night, but, ultimately, it didn’t matter as the Jayhawks stole a game at a rowdy WVU Coliseum, topping sixth-ranked West Virginia, 71-66, to keep its spot atop the Big 12 despite whatever issues bothered them against the Mountaineers and may persist well into the winter.

One of the major differences of this Kansas team from the 13 that preceded it is the Jayhawks can’t overwhelm with talent and athleticism. There’s no Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson, Thomas Robinson or any other surefire lottery pick to just go get buckets. There isn’t a host of high-level athletes that can help Kansas just run inferior teams off the floor. When you have two things, your margin of error gets padded. Mistakes aren’t magnified. They’re minimized. That’s not a luxury Kansas now enjoys.

Then there’s the issue of the roster. Even with Silvio De Sousa being declared eligible, Kansas is still incredibly thin and inexperienced up front. Udoka Azubuike is a load, but he’s the only big man that even inspires a bit of fear from opponents. If Billy Preston ever gets on the floor, maybe this becomes less of an issue for the Jayhawks, but it’s difficult to believe a true freshman making a whole host of difference this late in the season.

So for Kansas to win its 14th-straight Big 12 regular season championship, the Jayhawks are going to have to have to play a specific way. There’s not much wiggle room. They’ve got to defend. They’ve got to shoot 3s. They’ve got to be tough. They’ve got to be resilient.

That’s exactly what the Jayhawks were against Bob Huggins’ team Monday. If you can out-tough, out-hustle and out-work a Huggins team on their home floor, you’re on to something.

West Virginia led by as many as 16 in the first half. The Mountaineers had Kansas shook. Well Sagaba Konate did, at least. Eulogies were already being written for Kansas, especially as West Virginia’s lead stayed in double digits past the midway point of the second half.

West Virginia is designed to wear down opponents. The Mountaineers try to create a crucible, especially in Morgantown, that will force opponents to wilt. That’s supposed to be its most potent late in games.

That’s when Kansas thrived.

The Jayhawks outscored West Virginia 26-11 over the final 8 minutes. The Mountaineers were 5 of 14 (35.7 percent) from the floor with four turnovers during that stretch. Kansas, conversely, make 7 of 10 shots overall and 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

It wasn’t exactly rope-a-dope, but Kansas saved its best for last. They made winning plays. That’s really what’s going to have to separate them from the pack this season. As good as Devonte Graham is, as effective as Svi Mykhailiuk can be and as good as Self is, the Jayhawks are going to have to grind more than they’re accustomed to. 

The Big 12 is unmerciful this season. Texas Tech already has a win at Allen Fieldhouse, Trae Young has gone full supernova and even the league’s bottom tier looks like tough outs. Kansas faces a major test, and they’ll do so without a roster that compares to some of the powerhouses Self has assembled. The Jayhawks have often been able to win just by delivering broad strokes. They were bigger, faster, stronger and, simply, better. When they coupled that with a mastery of the finer points of the game, they dominated.

If The Streak is going to reach 14, it won’t be with that blueprint. The grittier parts of the game are going to have to come to the forefront. Outlasting West Virginia in Morgantown while shooting 44 percent and facing double-digit deficits would suggest the Jayhawks have the toughness and ability to make clutch plays that can paper over other issues.

Kansas isn’t going to overwhelm the Big 12 this year. They still very well could win it.