5:05 PM EST, CBS – Line: Duke -3, Over/Under: 154.5
Though the 2018 NCAA Tournament has certainly been defined by it’s chaos, we finally get a matchup between two of the sport’s powerhouses, as the Two-Seed Duke Blue Devils face off against the One-Seed Kansas Jayhawks in the Midwest Regional Final from CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska, for the right to advance to next weekend’s Final Four. Together these two bluest of Blue Bloods have combined for a staggering Thirty Final Fours and Eight national Championships. Based off of their pedigree, roster, and Hall of Fame Head Coach, it comes as to absolutely no surprise that Duke (29-7, 13-5 in ACC) has managed to avoid getting upset by any of the litany of Mid-Majors that have wrecked havoc on the Tournament Field, advancing to their fourth Elite Eight in the last nine years with relative ease. Fifteen-Seed Iona (89-67) and Seven-Seed Rhode Island (87-62) hardly posed much of a threat to Mike Krzyzewski’s charges, and even their 69-65 victory over Syracuse on Friday Night could have been viewed as an affair that wasn’t quite as close as the final score would have indicated. While the Orange were fresh off of a pair of upsets thanks in large part to their vaunted 2-3 Zone Defense, the Blue Devils ended their run on the strength of their familiarity with that defensive strategy. With both teams calling themselves a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference (Syracuse has been a member since the 2013-2014 Campaign), Coach K & C0. were no strangers to Jim Boeheim’s Zone, and having already faced it earlier this season (a 60-44 Duke rout), proved adept at playing at their opponent’s preferred tempo, in effect beating them at their own game. Granted, one look at the numbers and you’d wonder just how the hell the Devils managed to control this game; they shot a miserable 39.3% from the Field, including 5-of-26 from Downtown (19.2%), and were outrebounded 33-30. However, despite the overall disadvantage on the glass, Duke was extremely active and effective on the offensive end, securing Fourteen Offensive Rebounds, which led to a number of easy, second-chance opportunities. Of course, that activity led to quite a few trips to the Charity Stripe to boot, where they knocked down 20-of-28 Free-Throws (71.4%), while successfully navigating their way through the tight windows of the Zone, assisting on Thirteen of their Twenty-Two Field Goals, while committing just Seven Turnovers. The key to victory was their size, or more particularly the Twin Towers of Marvin Bagley III (21.2 PTS, 61.5% FG, 11.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.9 BLK, 31.0 PER) and Wendell Carter Jr. (13.6 PTS, 56.8% FG, 9.3 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.1 BLK, 28.6 PER), whose activity and chemistry around the rim allowed their team to negate the compact nature of the Zone throughout the affair. Bagley, who finally looks as healthy as he’s ever been after numerous spells on the Trainer’s Table, was fantastic, leading the way with Twenty-Two Points on 8-of-12 Shooting (66.7%), with Seven Rebounds (Six Offensive) and an Assist, while Carter was borderline great in support, scoring Fourteen Points on 3-of-6 Shooting (50.0%), with Twelve Rebounds, a Steal and a Block. Together, the two Freshmen accounted for Ten of Duke’s Fourteen Offensive Rebounds, while also combining for 14-of-19 from the Free-Throw Line (73.7%), with the majority of those Singles coming via fouls due to their activity on the offensive glass. Standing 6-11 and 6-10 respectively, the ability to play these two together for long stretches is an absolute luxury that Krzyzewski has exploited and will continue to moving forward, particularly against Kansas tonight, who are much more perimeter-oriented this season than they have been in years past.
Meanwhile, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same for Kansas (30-7, 13-5 in Big XII), who in a year in which their stranglehold on the Big XII finally looked as if it were coming to an end, won the league for a record fourteenth consecutive time, while earning yet another No. One Seed in the NCAA Tournament. Today’s affair marks the third straight trip to the Elite Eight for the Jayhawks, who have seen their season end at this point on each occasion, with an eye on their first Final Four since 2012. With that said, despite their lofty pedigree and high seeding, Bill Self’s charges haven’t exactly coasted through the first three rounds of this Tournament, no, for they have had to resort to outlasting each of their last two opponents, Eight Seed Seton Hall (83-79) and most recently Five Seed Clemson (80-76). In both contests it was their offensive prowess that carried them to victory, netting 50.0% of their Field Goal Attempts against the Pirates, followed by 46.7% against the Tigers. Actually, it as their Three-Pointing Shooting to be precise, that ultimately put them over the top; Kansas knocked down 19-of-43 Treys in those two contests (44.2%), outscoring the opposition by Nine Points in the process. The Big XII Champions were 10-of-22 from beyond the Arc against Clemson, with many of those Threes coming in the First Half in which the ‘Hawks built a sizeable 40-27 lead at Halftime. While the Tigers certainly made things interesting after Intermission, the early damage proved to be too much to overcome. Four different players ended Friday Night’s outing in double-figures, with Malik Newman (13.5 PTS, 46.6% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 4.9 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.5 PER) and Devonte’ Graham (17.3 PTS, 39.6% 3FG, 40.4% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 7.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 21.5 PER) leading the way with Seventeen and Sixteen Points respectively on a cumulative 10-of-22 Shooting (45.5%), including 6-of-12 from Downtown (50.0%), along with Twelve Rebounds, Seven Assists, and Two Steals. Graham and Newman have figured prominently in a rather perimeter-heavy with four different Guards averaging at least 12.0 Points per Game, with each shooting well over 38.0% from long-range and draining a minimum of Fifty-Seven Three-Pointers this season. As a team, Kansas was one of the most prolific teams in the country in bombing away from distance, netting 371 Three-Pointers, or in other words, an average of just over Ten per Game, the Seventh-Most in the Division-1 Hoops this season. Hell, Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (14.8 PTS, 43.8% FG, 45.1% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 17.1 PER) alone have made 103 and 111 Threes respectively. However, while the Money Ball has certainly garnered them a considerable deal of success thus far, Self & Co. must be wary of relying too heavily on this facet of their game; despite going 17-2 in games where they’ve made at least Ten Treys, the Jayhawks have shot a miserable 29.7% from beyond the Arc in their seven losses. If Self is to improve upon his 2-5 record in the Elite Eight in his time in Lawrence then he’s going to need some balance, with really only place to find it being the giant Udoka Azubuike (13.2 PTS 77.5% FG, 7.0 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.7 BLK, 29.4 PER). The 7-0, 285-lbs Sophomore from Nigeria will be absolutely VITAL in today’s matchup with Duke, particularly in the Paint against the aforementioned Bagley and Carter. Despite being a bit injury-prone, the big fella has been by far and away the Jayhawks’ most indispensable player, particularly in a short Rotation that features so many Guards and only seven guys playing over Eight Minutes per Game. In the victories over Seton Hall and Clemson, he posted combined totals of Twenty-Four Points on an efficient 11-of-14 Shooting (78.6%), with Eighteen rebounds (Five Offensive), Three Assists, Two Stelas, and Two Blocks. Unfortunately, he’s also racked up Nine Fouls as well, fouling out of the Regional Semifinal Tie. Needless to say, this kid must stay out of Foul Trouble against the Blue Devils, otherwise his team’s Defense around the rim will drop precipitously.