It was a bit more challenging than expected, but Duke advanced to the Elite Eight with a 69–65 win over Syracuse on Friday night. It’s the Blue Devils first trip to the Elite Eight since winning the national championship in 2015, and sets up what could be an instant classic on Sunday. Duke will meet fellow blue blood Kansas for the right to go to the Final Four. What did we learn from Duke’s squeaker of a victory?
1. The Blue Devils may have the most diverse offense remaining in the tournament
Duke didn’t get much out of its perimeter players on Friday. Grayson Allen was 4-of-15 from the floor. Gary Trent made just five of his 13 field goal attempts. Trevon Duval was the worst, slogging his way to a 1-of-7 night. Few teams can get a win when three players who average a combined 40.2 points per game score 31 on 28.6% shooting, but that’s just one of the traits that makes this team so special. Marvin Bagley was dominant all night, scoring 22 points on 8-of-12 from the floor. He regularly broke Syracuse’s zone, getting the ball in the middle of the 2–3, facing up, and knocking down 12-foot jumpers. Wendell Carter didn’t get nearly as many opportunities but was just as efficient, making three of his six shots, and connecting on eight of 11 free throw attempts to finish with 14 points. The two of them were more than enough to keep the Orange at arm’s length all night. The Blue Devils will certainly need more out of their perimeter players to beat Kansas, but there’s strength in knowing that any of five different players could lead the team in scoring, even on a night when it has its A-game.
2. Duke’s 2–3 zone must be active on Sunday
Kansas is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, ranking 10th at 40.5% from behind the arc. According to kenpom.com, the Jayhawks get 37% of their points on threes, the 49th-highest rate in the country. That was on full display in their Sweet 16 win over Clemson, when they made 10 of their 22 attempts from distance. In that game, it was Malik Newman who led the way, going 4-of-7 on threes. Newman is just one of three players on Kansas who shoot at least 40% from long range on at least 188 attempts, along with Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte’ Graham. If Duke is going to come away with the win and advance to the Final Four, it will have to find a way to run Kansas off the three-point line. That’s something at which the Blue Devils have been successful all season; they’ve held their opponents to a 31.9% mark from three-point land, good for 19th in the country. Kansas is nearly impossible to beat when it is firing from distance. Duke has been one of the best defensive teams in the country since transitioning to 2–3 zone as its primary defense. It will have to be on Sunday to get to San Antonio.
3. The matchup between Marvin Bagley and Udoka Azubuike will be one of the most important games-within-the-game
Azubuike was a bit of a question mark heading into the NCAA tournament because of a knee injury that forced him to the bench for the entire Big 12 tourney. If Kansas’s last two games are any indication, he’s back to full strength. He scored 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting in the Jayhawks’ Sweet 16 win over Clemson, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked two shots. Azubuike was one of the best interior defenders all season racking up 1.7 blocks per game and ranking 62nd in kenpom.com’s block rate. What’s more, if he can be a weapon on offense, he could force Bagley into foul trouble, which would totally change the complexion of Duke’s offense. The Bagley-Azubuike matchup will likely be one of the keys to Sunday’s regional final.