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.