Next up for Duke is Louisville and the timing couldn’t be worse: on Tuesday afternoon Louisville’s appeal to the NCAA was rejected and the Cardinals lose 123 victories including the 2013 national championship which is now vacant.
Duke is likely to find a motivated bunch of Cardinals. Louisville is an okay 18-9 overall and 8-6 in the ACC but this team is better than its record. It’s just been a bizarre and tough year for the players. It started when the Adidas/FBI scandal broke. Then Rick Pitino was forced out followed by Louisville’s athletic director Tom Jurich.
David Padgett was named interim coach and for a time he was running the show entirely by himself sans assistants.
The Cardinals have been very solid under the circumstances and have gotten better as the season has gone on.
Padgett has a tough pair of big men to deal with in 6-10 junior Ray Spalding and 7-0 senior Anas Mahmoud. Spalding has shown at times that he can play as well as anyone in the country and Mahmoud is a good a shot blocker as there is.
Forwards Adel Deng and VJ King are a nice pair of versatile mid-sized players. Freshman Darius Perry will likely start at one guard and Quentin Snyder will certainly start at point.
Deng missed a couple of games recently with an ankle injury but should be fine here.
Louisville is third in the country in blocked shots and as you’d expect from a team Rick Pitino put together defends well.
Duke may find that Mahmoud clogs up the middle effectively and the rest of the team is capable of outstanding defense. It might not defend as well as Pitino would have had them defending but it’s still not bad.
And as you’d also expect from a Pitino team, the rotation is fairly deep. Ten guys are getting double-figure minutes. Ryan McMahon and Jordan Nwora are both guys who can get hot and have to be watched carefully.
Also on the roster, a name that may throw some Duke fans off: Lance Thomas.
For Duke, we haven’t heard yet whether or not whether Marvin Bagley will play or not.
The young phenom has missed three straight games and while some people think it’s just fine, Duke’s interior scoring and rebounding - especially offensive rebounding - has been seriously affected.
Still there’s no denying that Duke’s defense has improved since Coach K’s tweaks (moving Grayson Allen to the point, going to zone almost exclusively and moving a better defender into the lineup with either Marques Bolden or Javin DeLaurier.
Remember though that Clemson, with a smallish lineup, had an offensive rebounding advantage at 12-8.
There are tradeoffs with everything but Bagley is possibly the best player in the country and no one gets better when they could have had the best player in the country but didn’t.
It’s also worth considering this: a lot of players who have sat out for injuries have observed from the bench and have in fact been coached from the bench. Bagley can surely see what’s happened in his absence and is a smart enough player to apply those lessons himself.
And even if it did turn out that Duke has a better defense without him you could always sub for what you need at the moment.
But this notion that Bagley is a liability is ridiculous. He’s a huge asset and irreplaceable.
Whether he plays or not DeLaurier and Bolden should help inside against Louisville’s talented big men.
Emotion though is likely to be key in this game. This group wasn’t involved in the 2013 shenanigans and whatever happened then. But they’re around the coaches and the staff and the fans and the writers. They could come into Cameron either very flat or sky high. Our money is on sky high.
As a reference point, may we remind you that when Louisville beat Duke in 2013, it was a three point game at the half with Louisville up 35-32.
With 6:33 left though Kevin Ware jumped to block Tyler Thornton and when he came down his leg broke and the bone popped out. We can still see Thornton running down court with a horrified look on his face (but the presence nonetheless to get back on defense).
Louisville, given time to compose itself and get emotionally fired up, just dominated Duke after halftime.
A guy like Bagley is an important factor. Shoot, anyone who can get on the court could potentially get emotionally fired up and do amazing things. Emotion is a wildcard in this game and Duke will have to find a way to match Louisville’s which is likely to be off the charts.
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