Dealing with the Devils
Seven easy steps to upsetting top-ranked Duke
Posted: Thursday March 25, 1999 03:41 PM
By Jonathan Ganz, CNN/SI
ATLANTA -- Duke is not perfect. No matter what anyone may tell you or you may read, the Blue Devils are beatable.
It happened after the clock struck midnight on a cold, late November night in Alaska when Cincinnati took them out 77-75. But it hasn't occurred since then, and right now the three other Final Four teams are frantically searching for the formula.
Make no mistake, the seven keys to pulling the upset are out there. The question is: Can Michigan State, Connecticut or Ohio State actually follow through on the difficult task? Here's what it will take:
1. Take William Avery out of his game
The Blue Devils point guard is the one piece of Duke's puzzle that can not be replaced. At any other position the Blue Devils have reserves who would be stars on most teams in college basketball, but not so at lead guard. Only twice this season, however, has Avery been taken out of his game.
The first time came in Duke's only loss, when he hoisted 22 shots and did not get power forward Elton Brand or shooting guard Trajan Langdon enough shots. The second time was against St. John's in late January, when Avery fouled out late in the game, and the Red Storm rallied to send the game into overtime before succumbing to the Blue Devils.
But fouling a point guard out of a game is not easily done. The game must be officiated extremely tightly, as the St. John's game was, or Avery must pick up a few charging fouls. All you are left with is playing great defense or the wild-card option -- let him shoot as much as he wants. It worked for Cincinnati. But that could backfire -- in the NCAA Tournament, Avery is shooting 54.5 percent from 3-point range.
2. Don't run with Duke
If a team wants instant death against the Blue Devils, try playing an up-tempo game. Duke leads the nation in scoring with nearly 93 points per game. Its transition game is lethal with all eight players in Duke's normal rotation capable of running the floor and finishing on the break.
A team's best bet is to slow the pace down and try to keep the Blue Devils under 75 points. Duke has been limited to 75 or fewer points just three times this season -- the loss to Cincinnati, a 73-67 win over Final Four opponent Michigan State and a 71-60 win over Kentucky. The bad news for Michigan State, UConn and Ohio State: Not once since December 22 have the Blue Devils not reached the magic number of 75 points.
3. Be physical with the Blue Devils
Want to know why a team needs to be physical with Duke? Brand leads the Blue Devils in scoring, field goal percentage and rebounding. If a team allows him to do whatever he wants around the basket, the game is over before the opening tip.
The Final Four teams would be wise to follow the example set by Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were the last team to have Duke down in the second half, leading by 10 points at one point before Duke took over late. They got to that point by being physical in the paint and on the perimeter. Being tough down low against Duke is not enough; aggressiveness must extend to the three-point line. The Blue Devils are shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range.
4. Get more rebounds than Duke
Just six times have the Blue Devils been outrebounded this season. One of those was against Michigan State. The Spartans mauled Duke on the glass in the teams' initial meeting in December, and it kept the cold-shooting Spartans in that game. This is vital for a team looking to beat the Blue Devils.
There is absolutely no way a team can get outrebounded by Duke, which leads the nation in scoring and is second in field goal shooting, and expect to win. All three Final Four teams are aggressive around the glass, and they will have to be keep Duke's big men from pulling down rebounds that lead to second-chance points on the offensive end and feed the transition game on the other end of the court.
5. Shoot well from 3-point range
Duke's perimeter defense is stifling. The Blue Devils have limited opponents to around 30 percent shooting from outside the arc. A lot of that has to do with Duke's quickness at every position. The Blue Devils are playing the best help defense in the country right now, and it keeps the number of open outside shots at a minimum.
Ohio State and Michigan State both have designated outside shooters, and for either of those teams to beat Duke, they would need to have great shooting nights. The only team to shoot better than 50 percent from 3-point range against Duke this year is -- you guessed it -- Cincinnati, which made 71 percent (five of seven) in its win. The Bearcats are also the only team all season to shoot better than 50 percent against Duke overall from the floor.
6. Keep the game close
The Blue Devils are motivated by the memory of last season's South Regional final collapse against Kentucky, in which the team blew a 17-point second-half lead. That loss has fueled them all year, and this year's Duke squad is relentless in killing a foe when it is down.
All of Duke's firepower makes it nearly impossible to come back against the team. So Michigan State must keeps things close to have a chance on Saturday night. If Mateen Cleaves and the Spartans come out of the gate cold against Duke on Saturday in the semifinals, they likely won't be able to keep it as close as they did in December when they rallied to make a game of it in the second half. Three months later, this is a better Duke team.
But it is also a team that has been in very few closes games down the stretch. Only twice this season has Duke had to rally in the second half -- in the loss to Cincinnati and the road win over Georgia Tech. The three Final Four teams would do well to play the first 36 minutes to get to the last four minutes. If the game is tight with four minutes to go, perhaps Duke won't know how to react or will start to feel the pressure that goes with being an overwhelming favorite. Of course, the Blue Devils do have a man on the sidelines who has been there before. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is in his eighth Final Four, while the other three coaches are making their first appearance on the college basketball's biggest stage
7. Get lucky
Let's face it: This Duke team may be one of the greatest college teams of all time. If the Blue Devils win the title, they would set the record for most wins in a season. Duke did not get to 36-1 with smoke and mirrors, and beating them will take something going wrong that hasn't happened since that late November night in Alaska when Cincinnati beat Duke on a dunk with one second left.
Even with the magic of Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves, an incredible shooting night from Ohio State's Michael Redd or phenomenal all-around play from UConn's Richard Hamilton, all three of those teams would have to have the ball bounce their way in a few unique, unpredictable ways.
Against any of the other Final Four teams, the Blue Devils are going to have the advantage at nearly every position, on the bench and in the coaching box. That makes luck the most important factor. Define luck as you wish, but it will have to come into play for Michigan State, UConn or Ohio State to beat Duke in the Final Four.
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