Not since Tyson Fury pummeled Deontay Wilder in October has there been a more exciting sporting event in Las Vegas, evident of the record-breaking 20,000 fans packed T-Mobile Arena to see No. 1 Gonzaga take on No. 5 Duke.
In the end, the Blue Devils knocked off the Bulldogs, 84–81, but with roughly four months until the Final Four tips off in New Orleans, the two college basketball powerhouses left lasting hope for a potential rematch in the spring.
Here are three thoughts following the clash of the titans.
1. Duke is a legitimate favorite to win the national title.
No, this isn’t me backing up my preseason pick earlier this month, it’s simply clear that the Blue Devils are built to not only get to New Orleans come April, but also complete one of the greatest storylines of the last decade, sending Mike Krzyzewski off into retirement with a national title.
Duke hounds the ball with an aggressive man-to-man defense using brute, tough athletes with great length, a nightmare scenario for the opposition. The Blue Devils’ pressure forced Gonzaga to start their offense just past the halfcourt line for most of the night, which made it tougher to set up their dribble handoff offense. As a result, the Bulldogs had 17 turnovers.
Also, Duke doesn’t hurt itself.
The Blue Devils came into the game averaging just 8.8 turnovers a game and finished with eight, just two of which came in the first half.
Offensively, Duke presents the greatest matchup problem in college basketball in Paolo Banchero, whose skillset was on full display (21 points, five rebounds, two assists) against Gonzaga before missing extended time in the second half with cramping. Mark Williams is one of the best centers in the country, Wendell Moore is the best two-way guard in the country and Trevor Keels, Jeremy Roach and Theo John are capable role players who could upgrade to stardom on any given night.
Duke’s been adamant that this season isn’t about Krzyzewski’s swan song, but as this team continues to realize its potential, the noise will grow louder around them pulling it off.
2. Gonzaga’s transition defense needs work.
Duke went full track meet off missed shots and turnovers in the first half against the Bulldogs and as a result controlled the momentum.
No, Mark Few’s squad won’t always face a 6’11” all-everything athlete like Banchero that can snag a rebound, ignite the break and either stop on a dime for a three-pointer or throw a lob for a slam in transition; still, the point remains.
Even in their lopsided win over No. 2 UCLA, Gonzaga had poor spurts in defensive transition, jogging instead of sprinting and failing to stop the ball.
Few made the adjustment in the second half, and they were noticeably better, but when Duke made its runs, it was typically because of the Bulldogs' inability to stop Duke’s penetration.
3. Round two please!
Call it a hunch, but the smart money is on Duke and Gonzaga landing on opposite sides of the NCAA tournament bracket come March. After tonight, both teams strengthened their case for a No. 1 seed and will have a legitimate shot to link up again in New Orleans.
And, let’s be honest, this is the game we want to see for multiple reasons.
Just think: Krzyzewski vying for title No. 6 in his 42nd and final season against Few, who is trying to get the proverbial monkey off his back after leading Gonzaga to two national title games, the last of which was last season’s 86–70 shellacking by Baylor.
Plus, we’d get round two of the two-man race to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft between Banchero and Holmgren, a dead heat that Banchero moved a shoulder length ahead on after Friday.
Sure, March Madness is anything but predictable, but both teams have proven to be juggernauts early on this season even with significant room to grow.
The sequel isn’t as farfetched as it seems.
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