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  • Even in what amounted to an off night for Duke—a great night for most teams—the Blue Devils still flashed so much promise in a win against No. 8 Auburn in Maui.
By Jeremy Woo
November 20, 2018

There’s not a team in college basketball that can be reasonably expected to beat Duke—if it happens, it will come by shock or not at all—but coming into Tuesday’s Maui Invitational semifinal there was some sense that eighth-ranked Auburn had a puncher’s chance. The Tigers feature an athletic, tough cast, blitz opponents with energy and love to bomb from outside. It’s no use for anyone running with Duke, but if Auburn could scramble effectively in transition and make enough timely shots, there was a pathway to keeping it close.

To nobody’s surprise, that was decidedly not how this thing went down. The Blue Devils took a punch or two, and it wasn’t all smooth sailing, but an impressive, unified showing (from a team driven by freshmen, no less) made a world of difference in a 78–72 victory. Whenever Auburn strung together positive plays, there was an adequate answer, and though an absurd free throw discrepancy (they shot just nine to their opponent’s 32) was a major factor, Duke’s cohesion and poise in a big-game, neutral site environment was wildly impressive. This wasn’t a flashy, open-court game replete with highlights. For a title contender of this caliber, it’s just as important to prove you can win the ugly ones.

Much has (appropriately) been made of Duke’s ridiculous collection of future NBA players, and much of that discussion has centered on the offensive end. But in an uptempo game, it was actually the Blue Devils’ team defense that most noticeably swung the day. No matter the opponent, the central challenge will be trying to dictate tempo against a group with Duke’s level of athleticism, skill and intelligence. It’s near-impossible when they can sustain their focus on defense. Auburn’s smaller guards struggled to penetrate as Duke’s bigger perimeter players stepped out onto to them. The star of the night was resurgent junior Marques Bolden (11 points, nine rebounds and six critical blocks) who looked mobile and motivated while turning in one of the best games of his college career. If Bolden can continue to be this impactful defensively in the middle, there might not be much hope for the rest of Division I basketball.

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Duke turned in a strong team effort in the first half, strangling the Tigers for long stretches, taking away clean threes, and somehow going the entire 20 minutes without sending their opponents to the foul line (Auburn fans will complain). They took just three minutes to break the game coming out of halftime, forcing turnovers, winning the defensive glass and igniting an 8–0 run. Auburn kept pushing hard, and a strong game from a healthy-looking Austin Wiley (17 points, nine rebounds) helped control the interior at points, but there was not a whole lot of consistency to be found otherwise. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown made four threes apiece, but it wasn’t an efficient night or a strong matchup for either player. The Blue Devils led by at least three possessions for the majority of the night, and their lead was never even cut to five or six for very long. 

If there’s something significant to take away from this result, it’s how scary it is that this is what Duke looks like on an ''off night." Zion Williamson (13 points, nine rebounds) battled early foul trouble and took time to get into the offensive flow. He was engaged, and impacted the game as a rebounder and by drawing a ton of fouls, but Auburn did a good job limiting his opportunities to score in space. R.J. Barrett didn’t shoot all that well (7–of–20 for 18 points), but played a nice all-around game and made his presence felt with eight rebounds and consistent aggression. Cam Reddish was steady, but habitually passive: all ten of his shots were three-pointers, he made four of them, but with all his gifts, he needs to be better. Yet with Bolden stepping up huge and Tre Jones playing steady ball, the game was never close to getting out of hand. Duke has more pathways to winning games than anyone they’ll face this season, and there simply aren’t many ways to flip the script on them. They draw the winner of Arizona and Gonzaga on Wednesday night in the final.


Bulldogs topple Arizona to ensure marquee matchup with Duke

Gonzaga took most of the game to figure things out. But after a nervy 30 minutes, the third-ranked Bulldogs blew their semifinal open to the tune of a 91–74 win over Arizona, setting up a marquee battle with Duke on Wednesday night. While the Bulldogs have been plagued by inconsistent guard play in their first two games in Maui, a timely, prolific second half from Zach Norvell Jr. (who missed his first 10 shots, but finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds six assists and two steals) ignited their transition offense and a 19–3 second-half run. It was an antidote to a half-court offense that had run stagnant, and a flash of how dominant this group can be (even without injured sharpshooter Killian Tillie).

Clearly, Gonzaga will win the talent battle on more nights than most, and even after a strong defensive effort from Arizona, the levee broke as the Zags’ intensity ticked up late in the game. Rui Hachimura’s mentality and floor game has improved significantly, and his 24 points were Gonzaga’s only steadying force as they labored early. San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke has proven invaluable, and when Tillie returns, this rotation can run seven or eight deep—regardless of the result against Duke, there’s reason for long-term optimism here. The key to it all is Perkins, who has to simplify things and play more like a senior—if he can be a steadying force every night, this is a Final Four-caliber team.

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For all Arizona’s effort, this wasn’t a poor showing, but the questionable interplay within their rotation is going to be problematic when conference play swings around. Driven by three ball-dominant guards in Justin Coleman (who starred with 28 points), Brandon Randolph and Brandon Williams, Sean Miller has entrusted his three best players with the fate of the team. It might lead to a bumpy ride: Arizona assisted on just three of 21 makes, and the ball movement issues that plagued last year’s team at times has returned despite an overhaul in personnel. They played effective ball pressure and made jumpers in the first half as Gonzaga labored, but it’s not going to be a sustainable approach against better opponents: the Wildcats don’t have the talent to outshoot opponents every night, nor do they have much quality in the frontcourt. This may be a gap year for the program, and a wait for next year’s talented recruiting class to show up in Tuscon.

Maui wraps up with the projected Gonzaga—Duke matchup (5 p.m. ET Wednesday) that certainly deserves the hype going in. The reality may not be so attractive: Duke proved against Auburn that it can grind out games as well as it can go showtime. Recall the Blue Devils’ blowout of Kentucky, whose guards really struggled within the game flow, and the Zags may have to play a near-perfect game to get it done. They’ll miss Tillie’s ability to space the floor and rebound, which won’t make it a perfect March preview, but it stands as both teams’ most difficult test of the season to date. It’s must-watch stuff.

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