Welcome back to the Tuesday Shootaround! After a week in college hoops that included a second consecutive Gonzaga loss and Kansas’s revenge for last March's Final Four drubbing by Villanova, the final throes of non-conference play loom before teams enter their league schedules as the calendar turns to 2019.
In our latest roundtable, our writers and editors take a look at the X-factors in this week’s biggest game, the non-conference results that may prove to be misleading and the top-10 team that we doubt will make it to Minneapolis.
Duke vs. Texas Tech pits kenpom.com’s No. 2 offense against its No. 1 defense—but it will be the first time Duke faces a top-10 defense and Tech faces a top-10 offense. What will make the difference at Madison Square Garden on Thursday?
Dan Greene: The Red Raiders’ defense will be pivotal, but they’ll need to help their case on the offensive end by making shots and taking care of the ball. Gonzaga beat Duke by shooting better than 52% both overall and from three and turning it over just 11 times, which prevented the Blue Devils from dominating in transition, as is their wont. Texas Tech has two capable outside shooters in Jarrett Culver (45.2%) and Matt Mooney (44.4%), but as a team it does not attempt threes at a very high rate (329th nationally), so it will need to shoot them especially well to boost its offensive efficiency. Tech also turns opponents over at the sixth-highest rate in the country—if it can ramp up the pressure and make Duke's young team uncomfortable, that could pay dividends here.
Molly Geary: I'm really looking forward to this matchup, which is a lot more exciting now than it was on paper in the preseason. Texas Tech has overachieved so far to get to 12th in the AP poll, but the Red Raiders have played one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the country and have only been tested by Nebraska—albeit a test it aced. The big key I'm looking for in this one is Duke's two-point offense, which ranks sixth nationally, going against the Red Raiders' two-point defense, which ranks first. Gonzaga is the only team that has held the Blue Devils to under 55% inside the arc, and Texas Tech is going to need a similar outcome and a big game inside by Tariq Owens (who, you may recall, helped St. John’s stun a different Duke team in February) to have a chance in this one. It's also going to need to score the ball itself, obviously, while facing the best defense it has seen this year.
Jeremy Woo: Tempo, tempo, tempo. The Red Raiders can’t match Duke’s firepower, but if they can maintain control of the gameflow and limit Duke‘s easy looks in transition—where Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett have made them more dangerous than anyone in the country—then they’ll have a puncher’s chance. Duke is an alarmingly poor jump-shooting team but has been remarkably efficient in spite of it, and while Texas Tech is excellent at running teams off the line and limiting clean looks, it’s more critical that they protect the rim in this one. Culver & Co. will have their hands full.
Michael Shapiro: Texas Tech must mitigate the Blue Devils’ advantage on the glass. Duke is the seventh-best offensive rebounding team in the nation, led by the dominant presence of Williamson. Barrett attacks the glass with abandon, and Marques Bolden snags over two offensive boards per game.
While Duke dominates the glass, Texas Tech relies on Culver as its leading rebounder. Tariq Owens is the only player among Tech’s top seven scorers taller than 6'5". Texas Tech has forced plenty of misses this season, but a string of second-chance opportunities as well. To compete with the Blue Devils at MSG, the Red Raiders will need to rebound with abandon and limit Duke to one-and-done in the half court.
Eric Single: It sure would be nice if Cam Reddish made his presence felt from behind the arc. Going back to late in the first half of the blowout win against Stetson, Reddish has connected on one of his last 17 attempts from beyond the arc. That top-ranked Texas Tech defense does its best work close to the basket, so the Blue Devils will need to do some damage from deep. Reddish disappeared for most of the loss to Gonzaga after taking exclusively threes the night before against Auburn, the best defense Duke has played so far. The long ball doesn’t need to be his only contribution in New York, but it should be a central one.
Jake Fischer: I’m really curious to see if Duke can find a rhythm offensively. When you close your eyes, can you picture how the Blue Devils’ scoring attack functions in the half-court? On a grand stage, against a stingy-as-heck opponent, will Mike Krzyzewski’s club be able to take a step forward and cement their offensive identity? It’s the biggest question mark for this young squad’s title hopes.
Which game from the first six weeks of the season will we end up looking back on as a mirage, leading us to misleading conclusions about one or both teams?
Greene: Penn State beating Virginia Tech on Nov. 27. The Nittany Lions had struggled enough out of the gate, losing to DePaul and Bradley, that I don't think people suddenly saw them as contenders after they knocked off the Hokies. But their two losses in three games have made clear that beating Virginia Tech was not quite a turning point in their season. Meanwhile the Hokies, who just picked up a nice 12-point neutral-site win over Washington, look like a top-four team in the ACC.
Woo: Gonzaga-UNC. Granted, I was there on Saturday and it’s fresh in my mind, but I don’t think this one was damning in any way when discussing Gonzaga as a title contender. Playing in Chapel Hill was maybe the toughest true road environment they’ll face all season, they continue to manage without Geno Crandall and Killian Tillie, and they now have West Coast Conference play to experiment and work out their rotation the rest of the way. While I was somewhat concerned that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke got killed on the glass, it’s hard to take that game as a concrete sign in any respect for the Bulldogs. Gonzaga played hard, and UNC’s shots (finally) fell. It was a better demonstration of the Tar Heels’ potency than anything else.
Geary: Texas over UNC in Vegas on Thanksgiving night. This game led me to believe that the Longhorns were pretty underrated and the Tar Heels had more issues than anticipated, and while both could still prove true, I think it will wind up one of those games where in February, we look back and say, "Huh?" Texas went out and lost three straight after that victory—including to Radford and VCU at home—with the offense looking nothing like the one that racked up 92 points on North Carolina. The Longhorns are a talented team and have an under-the-radar freshman in Jaxson Hayes, but at this point I won’t be surprised if my original middle-of-the-pack Big 12 expectations are met. UNC, meanwhile, is a team that has probably gotten too bad of a rap for some early struggles. The Tar Heels are actually No. 4 on kenpom.com, No. 3 on Sagarin and No. 7 on T-Rank, suggesting the analytics back their status as a real Final Four and national title contender.
Shapiro: Michigan’s 86–67 drubbing of North Carolina in late November. That’s not a swipe against the Maize and Blue. Michigan’s defense is elite, No. 3 in defensive efficiency per kenpom behind the sturdy backline of Jon Teske and Ignas Brazdeikis. But don’t expect the Tar Heels to replicate that meek offensive output often this season. North Carolina is a legitimate scoring machine, hanging 103 points on Gonzaga on Dec. 15 and 94 on UCLA on Nov. 23. Luke Maye seems to have his groove back from an early-season slump, highlighted by a 20-point, 16-rebound effort against the Zags. The Tar Heels are No. 3 in the nation in points per game, boasting a quartet of effective scoring threats. If Nassir Little can find his footing in ACC play, the Tar Heels will be a leading Final Four contender come March.
Single: Only by the degree of overreaction, Duke’s evisceration of Kentucky in the Champions Classic will probably be reexamined at season's end. The Wildcats have been far from perfect since they left Chicago, but the true talent gap between them and the Blue Devils is not 34 points, and as Gonzaga and Auburn have shown, this Duke team is merely one of the undisputed three best squads in the country, not one of the undisputed three best squads in a generation. Meanwhile, John Calipari is mentioning “tweaks” months ahead of schedule, so it's only a matter of time before UK inexplicably jells into an SEC power player.
Fischer: I think Gonzaga’s recent loss to UNC isn’t indicative of the Bulldogs’ prowess. I’m super bullish on the Zags—I’ve probably written that in each roundtable I’ve participated in. Gonzaga is still without Killian Tillie, and Geno Crandall has not played since the team’s win over Duke. Once the Zags get healthy and establish their true rotation, I don’t know if there’s a deeper, more talented team than Mark Few’s club.
Which current AP top-10 team are you least sold on as a true Final Four contender right now?
Greene: Even after their big win over Gonzaga, I have concerns about North Carolina because of its defense. The Tar Heels have played four teams in the kenpom Top 50 and all of them have managed to score 1.06 points per possession or better, which doesn’t bode well for March, when there are no nights off from quality competition. I’m not drastically more, uh, un-sold on the Heels than I am on some other teams in the back half of the top 10, but their likely weakness is among the more obvious.
Woo: Michigan State. It might be that I’m having issues getting the opening loss to Kansas out of my mind, but the Jayhawks deftly exposed the Spartans’ weaknesses, which lie in their roster construction, and I think there’s a reasonable chance this team struggles down the stretch. Nick Ward struggles to play against size, Cassius Winston can be bottled up if you force him to attack the basket, and I don’t trust Josh Langford as more than a reliable third wheel. This team has to be worth more than its individual parts, and while Tom Izzo is capable of getting it out of them, I question how it all corresponds to the Spartans’ ceiling.
Geary: I’m not sure if this is a bit of a hot take or not, but I’m going to say Nevada. I have a lot of respect for the Wolf Pack, and their offense is capable of running most teams out of the gym. Their defense—a real concern last year—seems to be improved, and Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin and Cody Martin are as good a starring trio as any. But something just isn’t quite clicking yet despite Nevada’s 11–0 start, as it has struggled to put together a complete game against almost all of the decent opposition it has faced. After trailing at halftime in every NCAA tournament game they played in March (don't forget they needed a huge comeback to beat Cincinnati), the Wolf Pack have been a firmly second-half team so far in 2018–19. Their overall first-half scoring margin ranks 61st nationally, at +5.7, while their second-half margin jumps to +10.5, sixth nationally. They’re also averaging nearly seven more points after halftime. You can't always count on comebacks, and if this trend continues it’ll be in the forefront of my mind come March.
Shapiro: I’ll excuse an opening-night loss to Kansas and road defeat at Louisville for Michigan State, so I’ll save my greatest skepticism for Auburn. A close loss to Duke in the Maui Invitational is hardly a blemish on their otherwise-sterling resume, but do the Tigers have enough firepower to survive the NCAA tournament’s first two weekends? Auburn clanked its way to a 84–53 loss in the second round against Clemson last year as the dynamic duo of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combined to shoot 6-of-25 from the field. Bruce Pearl has done an impressive job turning around a previously-dormant program, though of the current AP top 10, his squad feels the least likely to head to Minneapolis.
Single: It feels like Tennessee could not possibly be playing any better than it is right now, and the third-ranked Vols still haven't beaten a high-major team by more than 13 points this year. Senior Admiral Schofield has gone full supernova in recent weeks, hitting six three-pointers to drop Gonzaga from the ranks of the unbeaten and dropping 29 on Memphis, but those magical outbursts were sorely needed to keep this offense churning. The Vols show up ready to take on all comers every single night, but I doubt they will ultimately put together four games in a row at this level of focus under the bright lights of March.
Fischer: Michigan State. The Spartans boast the 13th-best strength of schedule in the nation, but I think that number will drop significantly once the season progresses. Their only ranked wins have come against no-longer-ranked UCLA and currently-overrated-at-No. 23 Iowa. Tom Izzo is one of the greatest coaches in the sport's history, but this team lacks shot creators and they’ve enjoyed a good portion of success on an absurd 39.5% collective shooting clip from deep. That number should regress to the mean, and Sparty may come back down to earth a little bit during conference play. The Big Ten is deep and dark and full of terrors this season.