Duke-Pittsburgh generating plenty of December buzz
Posted: Wednesday December 19, 2007 10:31PM; Updated: Thursday December 20, 2007 8:24AM
I caught Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon on his cell phone as he was riding with his players en route to the airport Wednesday afternoon. I had called, naturally, to get his thoughts on Thursday night's matchup with No. 6 Duke at Madison Square Garden. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. "Everybody's been calling me and talking about it," Dixon said. "For a game in December, it's been unbelievable."
Indeed, this game is generating tons of buzz for a variety of reasons. Though there have been some pretty good matchups thus far, the nonconference portion of the college hoops season has for the most part yielded forgettable games. (Some notable exceptions were UCLA-Texas, Arizona-Kansas and Gonzaga-Washington State.) Duke-Pitt is just the third game this season that features a matchup of two teams ranked in the top 10 of at least one of the polls. (Duke is 7th in the coaches' poll, Pitt is 9th.) Finally, it is happening in the media cauldron of New York City, and neither Isiah Thomas nor Roger Clemens is invited.
Moreover, the Panthers and Blue Devils will have the stage to themselves Thursday, while Saturday's Georgetown-Memphis tilt, even bigger rankings-wise, will have to share the bill with several other compelling games that day. Thursday's game is so illustrious that in advance of my standard Five for Friday picks column, I herewith offer my very first foray into One for Thursday. The key questions for this game are:
1. Will Duke be making threes?
The Blue Devils are shooting a sizzling 44.1 percent from behind the arc and draining 10.1 treys per game. Their top six scorers all make at least 38.9 percent and four make at least 44.4 percent. They drive and move the ball so well, there's really nothing a defense can do to prevent them from getting open looks. If Duke's shots are going down en masse, it's hard to envision them losing.
2. Who will win the tempo war?
Duke is ranked first in the country in offensive efficiency; Pitt is ranked third. So we should see lots of crisp offensive basketball. The Blue Devils, however, like to play at a much faster pace. They are ranked 14th nationally in possessions per game, while the Panthers are 236th. (Though it should be noted Pitt is scoring 82.1 ppg to Duke's 89.1.) Whichever team creates the type of game it wants will have a clear advantage.
3. Is DeJuan Blair ready for his close-up?
Pitt's freshman power forward hasn't gotten a fraction of the love that many of his classmates around the country have, but that could change. At 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, he'll remind a lot of Duke fans of Elton Brand. Blair is Pitt's leading rebounder (9.1 average) and second-leading scorer (11.8 ppg), and he scored 16 and 20 points, respectively (to go with 14 and 10 rebounds), in Pitt's last two games against Washington and Oklahoma State. Since a big, sturdy big man is the one thing Duke doesn't have, Blair could very well be the difference.
4. Can Pitt limit Duke's transition opportunities?
Unlike those pesky three-pointers, Duke's opportunities for breakaway layups can be held in check if Pitt does two things -- take care of the ball and attempt smart shots. The first should be no problem; their point guard, Levance Fields, is ranked 10th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, and as a team Pitt is ranked 16th nationally in turnovers committed. The second area is what concerns Dixon most. "If you take a bad shot," he says, "it's harder to get back on defense. That's always something we emphasize."
5. Who will be the home team?
Yes, Duke has had great success at Madison Square Garden. The Devils are 15-5 under Mike Krzyzewski there. (Take that, Isiah.) But as Dixon points out, the Panthers have had more than their share of happy memories at MSG, too. They're 14-7 at the WMFA over the last six years, and they've reached the Big East championship game in six of the last seven years. Plus, five Pitt players are from the New York area. "We're going to have a large contingent of fans there, too," Dixon said. "We've always spoken of the Garden as our second home."
6. Enough with the questions. Who's gonna win the friggin' game?
You have to believe both teams will play well tonight. In such an evenly matched game, the edge goes to the team with the superior ability to score in quick bunches.
Prediction: Duke 78, Pittsburgh 76