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Can Duke Knock Off Gonzaga? The Cases for the Blue Devils and Bulldogs

A star-studded, top-five matchup highlights Thanksgiving weekend in men’s college hoops.

Eight months ago, when Sports Illustrated informed Chet Holmgren that he was indeed going to finish as the No. 1 player in the SI99 basketball rankings, he was appreciative of the appointment but made it clear that he cared about only one ranking.

“I want to be No. 1 on draft night,” Holmgren said matter-of-factly. “That’s it.”

No, a dominant showing Friday, when Holmgren leads No. 1 Gonzaga into T-Mobile Arena for its 10:30 p.m. ET clash with No. 5 Duke, won’t lock up the first handshake with NBA commissioner Adam Silver come June. But it could go a long way from a perception standpoint with Duke’s Paolo Banchero patrolling the hardwood.

Banchero and Holmgren are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on SI’s latest NBA draft big board.

Still, while much will be made of the Holmgren-Banchero matchup, that’s merely scratching the surface of what variables will have to come into play to escape with a win in Sin City.

Duke's Wendell Moore and Gonzaga's Drew Time

Wendell Moore Jr. (left) and Drew Timme.

The case for Gonzaga

The Bulldogs made their highly anticipated matchup against No. 2 UCLA look like a preseason exhibition tune-up, dominating the Bruins in every way all game en route to an 83–63 win. Gonzaga was, well, Gonzaga: Andrew Nembhard made all the right reads and made the defense pay for spying Holmgren, Drew Timme exposed mistakes and mismatches with his diverse skill set, and Holmgren did it all.

Duke will need to keep the Tylenol on hand for its scouting report; Mark Few’s high-octane offense is pumping out 91.5 points and 19 assists a game. Want to stop Timme? Holmgren will have a field day. Keying in on Holmgren? Nembhard will make you pay, and if you’re able to contain him, Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton are a nightly threat for 20-plus-point games.

“That’s the beauty of this program and this offense,” Timme said. “This team is so unselfish, it doesn’t matter who scores or whose night it is, we just enjoy winning.”

Simply put, the Bulldogs don’t have flaws offensively and their depth and chemistry overcome even the slightest holes.

The case for Duke

As important as Banchero is in every way imaginable for the Blue Devils, Wendell Moore Jr. is making a legitimate case for being the best two-way guard in the country this season.

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Last year, Duke needed Moore to be a star, but he’s a natural role player. When he’s not forced to carry the load, he thrives, evident of his numbers—17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists—this season.

Moore and Banchero combined for 50 points, 17 assists and zero turnovers in Duke’s 107–81 win over The Citadel on Monday and form the most complex duo the Bulldogs have seen this season.

Additionally, Duke plays with a toughness, especially on the defensive end, that the Bulldogs haven’t had to contend with. Trevor Keels is a bully of a guard, A.J. Griffin has come on of late, and Jeremy Roach has been the perfect complement on both ends.

Coming into their game against The Citadel, the top three-point shooting team in the country over the last six years, the Blue Devils were holding opponents under 26% from the three-point line. The Bulldogs ended up making the most threes (18) of any opponent in Cameron Indoor Stadium history, and, yet they trailed by 15–20 points for most of the second half.

Mike Krzyzewski’s squad doesn’t beat itself, averaging just 8.8 turnovers a game. His frontline of Banchero, Mark Williams and Theo John are the perfect blend of strength, athleticism and toughness, and Duke’s aggressive man-to-man defense accounts for 9.3 steals and 15 turnovers a game.

The verdict

From Banchero-Holmgren to Timme-Williams to Moore-Nembhard, intriguing matchups abound, and it’s a foregone conclusion that the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft is playing in this game.

The Bulldogs’ tactical dismantling of UCLA would sway any jury vote about them being the undisputed top team in the country, but let the record show that the Bruins were without blue-collar big man Cody Riley, who’s been nursing a sprained knee for the past couple of weeks. His presence transcends his 10 points and five rebounds a game.

Duke’s frontcourt is fully stocked and is best equipped to counter Gonzaga’s versatile frontline.

The Blue Devils will have to push the tempo and stretch the defense by knocking down shots from the perimeter. They’ll also have to rely on Moore’s and Keels’s ability to penetrate the lane and finish through contact to try and draw early fouls on Holmgren and capitalize off their trademark forced turnovers.

Still, the mere fact that the bigger question is more about what Duke will have to do to beat Gonzaga as opposed to who has the best chance of winning is telling.

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