Arizona ready to knock down Duke in Black Friday showdown
Thanksgiving is a day for gluttonous metaphoric overkill. Allow me to guess that your belly was probably full of college hoops by last night. You were sitting on the couch, pants button undone, sure that you couldn't watch another game.
But then, the day after Thanksgiving comes, and you feel a pang. You're ready for your second wind. And what, pray tell, is in that Tupperware container in the fridge?
Duke-Arizona. The hunger game.
This matchup of two of the top six teams in the AP poll can't come soon enough. The last two weeks have not been kind to elite teams. Among the schools ranked in the top 10 of the AP's preseason poll, we have seen a slew of close calls (Michigan State-Columbia, Kentucky-Cleveland State, Syracuse-St. Francis, Kansas-Wake Forest, Duke-Vermont, Arizona-Drexel) as well as some surprising losses (Michigan-Charlotte, Louisville-North Carolina). So in some respects, it will be a relief for Duke and Arizona to be playing each other. Whoever wins, it won't be considered an upset.
Although Arizona is the higher-ranked team, the Blue Devils will likely be favored because they will be playing in Madison Square Garden, their home away from Cameron. But if there's one thing we've learned, it's that there are no sure things, in life or in basketball.
So let's just give thanks that our holiday week is going to end with some genuine appointment viewing. Which team will feast, and which one will end up a cold, sliced turkey? Here are the four main questions that will determine that:
1. Is Jabari Parker due?
Not since Kevin Durant -- you've heard of him, right? -- has a freshman topped the 20-point mark in each of his first seven games. After Parker scored 27 points in Wednesday night's semifinal win over Alabama, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Parker is as talented as any freshman he has ever had -- and as you know, he has had quite a few good ones.
Which leads the resident pessimist in me to wonder: Is Parker due for a clunker? It's easy to forget how young he is, but that aside, you know that Arizona coach Sean Miller is devising his game plan specifically to stop Parker. Of course, every other coach has tried to do that and has been unsuccessful, but Miller has the personnel to pull it off. If that happens, the Blue Devils are in deep doo-doo, because they have developed an unhealthy habit of standing around too much and waiting for SuperJabari to deliver them from danger.
2. Is Aaron Gordon ready to get Wiggy?
Speaking of freshmen (and when do we not speak of freshmen?) let us consider what Arizona forward Aaron Gordon faces tonight. After the Wildcats' escape against Drexel on Wednesday night, coach Sean Miller made a reasonable point. "Aaron isn't going to wow you with 25 shot attempts," Miller said.
Fair enough. Gordon is not a pig. But he has to take more than six shots, as he did on Wednesday. Remember, Duke's biggest weakness is its lack of size. Gordon will almost certainly be guarded by a smaller player tonight. He must take advantage.
3. Has Duke corrected its defensive problems?
The Blue Devils' inability to stop dribble penetration nearly cost them against East Carolina and Vermont. That could spell doom against the Wildcats' quick backcourt of T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson (9-for-10 free throws vs. Drexel) and reserve sophomore Gabe York. Overall, Duke is ranked 118th in defensive efficiency on Kempom.com. Their talent is too great, and their coach is too good, for this not to improve. But how soon?
That's why it was a good sign that Duke played solid defense in its 74-64 win over a quick Alabama team in Wednesday night's semifinal. The Crimson Tide committed 11 turnovers in the first half and shot 34.6 percent from the field. Duke also took five charges in that first half, which is extremely hard to do under the new rules. Coaches aren't preaching taking charges to their players like they used to, but since Duke has no bona fide shot blocker, that is its best method of protecting the rim.
4. Which X factor is going to come through?
One of the big mysteries of the college basketball season is the manner in which Rasheed Sulaimon has regressed. Last year, Duke's 6-4 shooting guard started every game as a freshman and was bursting with confidence. Now, he is a shell of his former self, largely because he did not return for his sophomore season with an improved long-range jump shot. In his last five games, Sulaimon is averaging 3.2 points and shooting 20 percent. Against Alabama, he did not convert a field goal in 18 minutes off the bench. He is capable of having a big game tonight, and if it does, it will be decisive.
Likewise, Arizona needs York to provide some offensive pop. He was a starter earlier in the season, but he was demoted to a reserve role as Miller has gone to a bigger lineup. York was a defensive liability against Drexel and looked lost on offense while missing all six of his shots. He is a streaky shooter. Duke needs to lock him up and hope he doesn't have a hot hand.
It is hard to pick against Duke in Madison Square Garden, especially in a big game like this. But that's what I am going to do. Here's why:
Yes, Arizona had a tough time on Wednesday, but at least that was against a good team on a neutral floor. Whatever concerns that performance raised, they are piddling compared to Duke's near-miss at home last week against a Vermont team that arrived in Cameron with a 1-4 record. The Blue Devils have been able to overcome their defensive deficiencies because of the magnificence of a single player. That works against lesser teams, but it generally does not work against elite ones. For evidence, check the Blue Devils' 11-point loss to Kansas back on Nov. 12, when Parker had 27 points but none of his teammates stepped up to help him down the stretch.
The bottom line is, these are two very good teams that are on a short list of favorites to win the national championship. Arizona is simply playing a little better right now, and the Wildcats' strengths (dynamic front line) match up well with the Blue Devils' weaknesses (guarding dribble penetration, lack of a true center). I expect a delicious leftover feast, but at the end of the night, Arizona will be the team licking Duke's bones clean.
Arizona 79, Duke 73