Duke and Syracuse played in Cameron on February 24th and while Duke won 60-44, both teams have changed a lot since then.
For Duke, it was the first game with Marvin Bagley back after his knee sprain (he missed several games after injuring it in Chapel Hill) and there was a certain amount of adjustment.
While he was out, Duke figured out a number of things and began playing on a higher level. Starting in Atlanta against Georgia Tech, Duke went to a 2-3 zone - Coach K basically learned it from Jim Boeheim during the Olympics - and as a result, Duke went from a leaky defensive team to one of the better defensive squads in the nation.
The Blue Devils also briefly took Trevon Duval out of the lineup and put Grayson Allen at point and used Javin DeLaurier down low to anchor a corner of the zone.
And after a few games coming off the bench, Duval returned to the starting lineup. Since playing Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament, Duval has had 11, 7, 8 and 7 assists against the Irish, UNC, Iona and Rhode Island. He’s had 33 assists to 15 turnovers in those games. He’s also been penetrating very well and, in a bit of a late surprise, has improved his three point shooting. Duval hit 4-5 against Iona and since Notre Dame is 5-13.
You may remember that we learned earlier this season that Duval had very poor vision in his left eye but that Duke doctors believed they could improve it. We have no idea how that’s going but if Duval is at least a credible threat from outside, that really changes things because you have to guard three three point shooters instead of two.
Wendell Carter, who like the other freshmen struggled with man defense, has emerged as an outstanding shotblocker in the zone. And interestingly - young big men pay note! - he doesn’t throw a miss into the third row. He stops the shot and tries to recover it.
Bagley appears to be fully healthy now and he’s a load as he’s been all season. CBS’s Gary Parrish, who had been pushing Oklahoma’s sensational freshman Trae Young for National Player of the Year, is now turning to Bagley.
And by the way, after ripping Bagley on TV for being “selfish,” ESPN’s Dan Dakich is backing off of that assessment as well.
But we digress.
Gary Trent went through a sort of mini-slump - maybe you could call it the freshman wall - and his three point shooting is still not back to where it was - but he’s playing much better. You may have noticed that his teammates have called him things like bulldog and pit bull and said that he’s a key player for Duke and perhaps the key player.
Coach K has a 12-letter word for guys like that but we
can’t won’t print it here. Suffice it to say that Trent’s shot and his instinct for the clutch are going to be key. Like Tyus Jones, another Apple Valley kid, Trent isn’t scared of the big moment. His brother Tre is also headed for Duke and also doesn’t appear to fear pressure. Maybe it’s something in the water.
A healthy and complete team is key of course but so is the defense. Duke’s offense has been a nightmare for opponents all year. Pair it with a tougher defense and you have a really problem.
Syracuse is better too though.
The Orange haven’t scored a lot in their three NCAA games, but as it often does, their zone has baffled opponents.
Pascal Chukwu is a still-awkward 7-2 and he has limited offensive value (he’s shooting 25% in the tournament and has only taken four shots). He is a serious obstacle inside though and can change shots. He can threaten nearly any attempt nearby and he’s rebounding well: He had nine against Arizona State, 10 against TCU and just two against Michigan State. Michigan State aside, that’s huge.
Oshae Brisset has established himself as a solid ACC player and NBA prospect. Nothing has changed there except continued improvement.
The backcourt of Tyus Battle and Frank Howard is still imposing and tall in the zone (Battle is 6-6 and Howard 6-5). Both of them, and particularly Battle, are serious threats whenever they have the ball.
The biggest change though is the emergence of Marek Dolezaj.
The 6-9 Slovakian is rapidly building a reputation as a crafty forward. He’s not much of an outside threat - just 2-9 from three point range on the season - but he’s made himself a presence inside. He lit Wake Forest up for 20 in the ACC Tournament and notched 17 against TCU. He’s still rail thin but the guy is improving rapidly.
You can more or less lay off of Chukwu on offense, and earlier you could back off of Dolezaj as well and focus on Battle, Brissett and Howard, who average 48.8 between them.
Keep in mind that Syracuse has not yet topped 60 in NCAA play but if Dolezaj has a hot night, that changes things.
Keep this in mind too: against Arizona State, Syracuse got 11 minutes from the bench and just two rebounds and no points. Against TCU? Try 15 minutes, four points, two assists and one rebound.
Syracuse had significant foul trouble against Michigan State and had to use the bench more so three guys played. Totals? 35 minutes, three points, four rebounds.
Of course Duke is highly reliant on its starters too. In Duke’s case though all five starters are serious draft prospects and all five could go for 20 points in any particular game. And while Duke’s primary reserves - Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden, Jack White and Alex O’ Connell - don’t score a lot, those five plus Jordan Goldwire would win a fair number of ACC games.
Offense in this game is probably secondary to an extent though: this one is probably going to be about defense.
Syracuse held Michigan State to 25.8% over the weekend and a total of 66 shots. Of those, Michigan State made 17 total and of those, eight were three pointers. That means that the Spartans scored just eight baskets three point line against Syracuse’s zone.
Against Iona, Duke held the Gaels to five three pointers (5-24) and 26-60 overall - so 19 shots that weren’t threes.
And against Rhode Island, the Rams hit seven threes (7-19) and shot 25-63 overall, which means 18 baskets occurred inside the three point line.
In the first meeting with Syracuse? The Orange hit 6-25 from deep and 17-54 overall. That works out to 11 successful shots inside the three point line.
As far as we can tell, Syracuse is indeed improved but still has a limited offensive ceiling. What Syracuse has done so far is to use the zone to hold scoring down to the point where it at least has a puncher’s chance at the end, and it’s worked so far.
And it could work against Duke too. Syracuse held the Blue Devils in the same range in Durham. Duke just held them even lower.
If the halftime score is something like 29-22 then it’s time to pay attention. But if Duke stays out of foul trouble, and deals with Boeheim’s zone reasonably well and controls the boards as the Blue Devil’s are capable of doing, then the path for Syracuse narrows considerably.
Of course, as we saw from Iona and Rhode Island, there’s a simple way to attack a sticky defense: try to beat it downcourt and shoot before it can set up.
If Duke does well in transition, things will be much more difficult for Syracuse.