Four questions that matter most for Duke-Louisville
INDIANAPOLIS -- During Sunday night's telecast of the Louisville-Duke Midwest Regional final, replays will inevitably be shown of a certain turnaround buzzer-beater from an Elite Eight game 21 years ago. I don't need to tell you which one, or that the two coaches involved will be meeting here in Indy for the first time in the NCAA tournament since that indelible moment. It is not necessary to view Sunday's game through that lens, because Louisville-Duke does not require a historic angle to make it palatable.
The two best teams left in the bracket are meeting at Lucas Oil Stadium. After a Saturday of Syracuse-Marquette and Wichita State-Ohio State grinders, Louisville-Duke is a godsend, a regional final that might as well be for the national championship. Multiple All-Americans will be on the floor; two tactical Hall-of-Famers will be on the sidelines. And these are the four questions that matter most:
1. Can Duke contain Russ Smith in transition?
When Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski went into superlative mode in Saturday's press conference, it was not hyperbolic*. What he said was, "There's not a better transition guard in the country -- [and] I'm trying to think of one in recent memory -- as Smith."
This is the truth: When Smith gets into the open court off of a steal or even a decent outlet pass, it typically doesn't matter if he's 1-on-2, or 3, or 4, or even 5 -- he finds a way to get a layup or get to the free-throw line. I combined Synergy's transition-possession logs with minutes-played data to identify which major-conference guards score the most in transition, and Smith is far and away the national leader, at 7.39 fastbreak possessions per 40 minutes played.
(*It should be noted that there was some hyperbole. Krzyzewski followed up that Smith comment with a compliment about his heart: "I'm getting old," Coach K said. "If I need a transplant, I hope he would give me his. He could give me part of it and I'd have more courage than I have right now.")
2. Can the Blue Devils counter-punch on the break ... or will they even try?
The Elite Eight player who comes closest to Smith's transition volume is Michigan's Trey Burke, who's more than three possessions/40 behind, at 4.23. And as for Duke's guards? This was a shocking discovery in my pregame research: They do less in transition as a foursome than Smith does by himself. Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Seth Curry and Tyler Thornton have combined for 228 transition points this season, according to Synergy, while Smith has 237.
3. Will Louisville's press work against guards who've been unbothered by the heat?
On Nov. 23 and 24 in the Battle 4 Atlantis, Duke faced the country's top two pressing, turnover-creating teams in VCU and Louisville. The Blue Devils didn't just win both games; they also kept their turnover percentage under 20 on both days, which was a remarkable feat. They coughed the ball up about as half as often as the average VCU opponent, and only about two-thirds as often as the average Louisville opponent, although the Cardinals were missing rim-protecting center Gorgui Dieng in that game. In that game, Duke beat the Cardinals, 76-71.
Louisville's vaunted 2-2-1 press wasn't at full strength against Oregon on Friday, either. According to Pitino, Smith infected the team with a "ridiculous cold," and its effects were evident in the Cardinals' limited turnover production. You could surmise that they'll be even more tired after a quick turnaround ... or spin it how Pitino did: "We didn't play a stitch of defense last night, so we're well-rested. Especially Russ."
4. Will the quick turnaround affect Seth Curry more than anyone?
Curry has been battling a stress fracture in his right shin all season, and his offensive production in spite of the injury -- including a 29-point effort against Michigan State on Friday -- has been stunning. But there is no question that his numbers drop on short rest; Duke Hoop Blog did a study after the ACC tournament on Curry's quick-turnaround stats, and I've updated it to include the Blue Devils' first three NCAA tournament games:
On four days of rest or more, Curry shoots 52.2 percent from long range; on less than four days rest, he shoots 37.9 percent. He also scores 4.5 fewer points per game, while playing the same volume of minutes.
When asked about facing Louisville two days after the Spartans, Curry said, "I don't think this next game off short rest is going to be any different. I feel ready to go."
If it's no different than what's happened earlier in the season, then we can reasonably expect him to be a few buckets short of what he delivered on Friday. That would still make for an impressive stat line, but in a title-worthy battle with the nation's best defense, in a game that's likely to be decided by just 1-2 possessions? It could make the difference.