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Next Up - West Virginia

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Next up for Duke is West Virginia, with the winner earning a trip to the championship game Monday night. The teams most recently met in the 2008 tournament, and West Virginia dominated Duke then to the point of openly mocking the Devils during and after the game.

West Virginia put a memorable beating on Kentucky last weekend, but we've watched that game quite a bit and feel comfortable making a few assertions:

First, no one can take anything from the way West Virginia played and we certainly don't intend to do that. They played Kentucky with intensity and passion. It was a remarkable performance.

However, there are a few things to point out:

  • West Virginia tore it up from three-point range in the first half, hitting 8-15. If we remember correctly, all of their baskets in the first half were from behind the line. This was not a characteristic performance.
  • In the second half, they were 2-8 from behind the line as the Kentucky defense opened like the parting of the Red Sea and the Mountaineers drove casually to the basket.
  • Of the 10 three-point shots for the game, four were by Da'Sean Butler and three were by Kevin Jones. One was by Joe Mazzulla, one by Wellington Smith, and one by John Flowers.
  • West Virginia shot 43.5% from three-point range, significantly higher than their normal three-point percentage of 33.6%.
  • For whatever reason, Kentucky found it impossible to defend West Virginia when they ran a player around a screen near the foul line. West Virginia scored on that play repeatedly. We still cannot understand why Kentucky did not adjust. It's not brain surgery.
  • For some reason, though Mazzulla is obviously left-handed, Kentucky allowed him to repeatedly drive to...the left. In the second half in particular, this just killed them. On more than one occasion, no one from Kentucky reacted defensively when Mazzulla began to penetrate. In fact, at one point, he began his drive from nearly half court, giving the defense plenty of time to react, but they never did. How can that happen?
  • Kentucky took 32 three-pointers, and made just four, missed their first 20, and didn't hit one until there was just 3:21 left in the game.
  • Kentucky also shot just 55.2% from the foul line, missing 13 potential points. If they had made six of these, it would have been a one-point game.
  • Kentucky out-rebounded West Virginia 45-34, and pounded them on the offensive boards 22-9. Obviously, they had a lot more misses, but still, that's an impressive rebounding performance.

A long time before this game, we said it was clear to us that Kentucky would have some issues at some point in the tournament, that they have not yet faced game pressure and that it wasn't clear what they would do when they did.

West Virginia exploited those issues brilliantly, and their 1-3-1 zone, which featured Devin Ebanks, Butler, Jones and Flowers at different times, presented what amounted to a wall, no pun intended, against Kentucky's penetration. The Wildcats came in as a weak three-point shooting team and nothing changed in this game. They simply couldn't adjust.

And while it's difficult to extrapolate from one game to the next, it seems to us reasonable to think that a more experienced team would have played West Virginia a little better.

Does that mean they we're calling this game for Duke? As we've said many times, we don't pick against Duke. Partly, it's because that's our team, and partly because over the years, we've seen them totally discombobulate great teams and players. Duke was competitive with UNC when they had Michael Jordan, Maryland with Len Bias, Glenn Robinson's Purdue, Nolan Richardson's Arkansas, UNLV, the second time anyway, Mark Macon's Temple team, UConn, David Robinson's Navy, and many, many others.

None of that of course guarantees a win on Saturday. The last time Duke played West Virginia, it ended up as more or less a disaster in the second half, with Mazzulla openly mocking Duke and his teammates ridiculing their conquered opponent in print after the game.

This time however, some things are different. For one, we are guessing that unlike Kentucky, Duke will understand that you can't let Mazzulla go to his left. We're also guessing that they won't let him telegraph a layup from half court.

And while West Virginia is a streaky team as they showed against Kentucky, Duke has not allowed an opponent more than five three-point shots in the tournament thus far (we should mention here that Kevin Jones is shooting around 40% from three-point range).

At times, Duke has not shot that well themselves, but they've compensated with defense and rebounding. And obviously, Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer, and Andre Dawkins are all capable of heating up from three-point range. Moreover, everyone but the freshmen have seen the 1-3-1 zone West Virginia kept when former coach John Beilein made a beeline for Michigan.

The difference between a Beilein team and a Bob Huggins team is both simple and brutal: Beilein relies on finesse and cleverness to beat you; Huggins just wants to kick your face in.

The general assumption that this game will turn on the dirty work is probably correct, but it could also turn on three-point shooting: if Duke gets hot from three-point range, the zone may not be an effective defense.

And while this is perhaps not exactly correct, Baylor in many respects was a great warm-up for West Virginia.

That game was fairly ugly until the end. Baylor was tall enough and rugged enough to match Duke blow for blow until the stretch run. So is West Virginia.

However, West Virginia will probably play without Darryl Bryant, leaving Mazzulla as the Mountaineer's only point guard. He had a brilliant performance against Kentucky of course, but as you'll see if you watch the tape, Kentucky's second half defense was virtually nonexistent.

Can you imagine what would've happened if Duke had allowed a player to start penetration at half court? We're guessing instant timeout and rectification and a "it better not happen again" look/speech from Krzyzewski. We're not sure Mazzulla's going to score 17 points again, but if he does, it won't come as easily. Nothing in his basketball life will come as easily as the 17 Kentucky gave up to him.

We don't have a strong feel for this game, but we think there are some givens: first, Duke has to control Butler, a job that will fall mostly to Lance Thomas and Singler. Second, we don't think, based on previous games, that Duke will give West Virginia free rein from three-point range. Third, we'd be very surprised if Duke misses half their foul shots.

If they allow West Virginia to shoot freely from three point range, don't defend the drive, miss half their free throws and allow Mazzulla to penetrate at will, they won't win and won't deserve to.

Duke is certainly not as talented as this year's Kentucky team was, but they are mentally tough and they find ways to get things done.

The rub of course is that so does West Virginia. It's going to be very physical, a very tough game. In order to win, Duke will have to maintain all their strengths and also deny some of West Virginia's.

For this year's team, that means rebounding, defense, three-point shooting and a hard-nosed mentality.

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