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There Was No “Blueprint” In The UCF Game

Unless you have a spare Tacko Fall on campus somewhere.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Duke vs UCF
Mar 24, 2019; Columbia, SC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Cam Reddish (2) loses control of the ball while defended by UCF Knights forward Collin Smith (35) during the second half in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Colonial Life Arena.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Monday after the first weekend of March Madness is always unique in the sports media landscape, as after four days with a total of 48 games to analyze, things suddenly go quiet. It leaves columnists and talking heads alike searching for a storyline to keep the casual college basketball fan engaged until the action picks up again on Thursday. And this year, a combination of a lack of Cinderella stories and an instant-classic between Duke and UCF on Sunday has provided that storyline (which is even now being discussed on our forums!): did UCF provide a so-called “blueprint” to beat the Blue Devils?

Proponents of this theory point to two key parts of Golden Knights’ game plan that produced the near upset. First, UCFs defense essentially dared Duke to shoot from the perimeter, with a combination of a zone defense and 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall guarding the rim. The strategy definitely kept UCF in the game, but when you look at things in closer detail it had mixed results. Duke’s primary scorers, Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish, actually shot quite well from the perimeter, finishing a combined 8-for-14 from beyond the arc. But Duke’s point guards, Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire, struggled, making a combined 2-for-11 threes.

Second, UCF shot (and made) a lot of threes themselves, finishing 9-for-18 from beyond the arc (including an incredible 5-for-7 performance from Aubrey Dawkins). The thought here is that if Duke is going to struggle from the perimeter, you can conceivably trade 2s for 3s with the Blue Devils in critical stretches to gain a lead. This most definitely contributed to UCF’s primary runs during the game, where they were able to open up two-possession leads multiple times.

But in order for this to be a “blueprint” to defeat Duke, it has to be replicable by other opponents. And here is where a closer analysis reveals that instead of providing a blueprint, UCF just provided an extremely unusual matchup to the Blue Devils that, combined with the extra motivation felt by the Dawkins family and Aubrey’s career-defining performance, nearly toppled Duke.

Take the defensive theory to start. The best way to defend Duke is probably with a zone defense, but most observant fans have recognized this since the team lost to Syracuse in January. But Duke has also shown it has a game plan of its own against the typical zone defense that has had success, even without stellar three-point shooting. What’s more, no team in America will be able to replicate the challenge presented by Fall at the basket.

There were further signs that the defensive performance put forth by UCF was an exception rather than the rule. Duke averages nearly 15 made free throws per game on the season, and the offensive game plan on Sunday clearly involved attacking the rim to get to the line once again (with the added bonus of getting Fall in foul trouble). But despite that, Duke only attempted 12 free throws all game against the Golden Knights (for those looking for a reason to complain about the referees, UCF had 20 attempts themselves). While playing defense without fouling would most certainly be part of the “blueprint” to beat Duke, it also is just a general principle of good defense, and it’s highly unlikely that the average referees are going to let as much go as they did on Sunday.

What about the offensive side of the so-called blueprint? Duke actually is one of the best teams at defending three point shots in the nation, with opponents averaging under 30% shooting from beyond the arc this season. With the exception of some early game defensive lapses, most of the threes that Dawkins and the Golden Knights made were contested shots. Quite simply, UCF’s 50% shooting from beyond the arc was more a function of Dawkins playing the game of his life than any particular offensive game plan.

So, for those still looking for the “blueprint” to beat Duke presented by UCF, I’d argue it’s the following: put a 7-foot-6 giant underneath the rim, make sure that chance is on your side and nearly all of the “50-50” whistles go your way, and somehow ensure that your team beats the law of averages and shoots the lights out against a fantastic perimeter defense. There isn’t another Tacko Fall lingering in the Sweet 16, and the rest of that blueprint relies more on chance than skill or coaching.

Now, in no way does that mean Duke cannot be beaten; indeed, the chalkiness of this year’s tournament means that the Blue Devils’ road to a National Championship is going to be as hard as any in recent memory. What it means is this: the calculus involved in beating Duke hasn’t changed because of one anomalous performance. Just like it has all season, beating this team will require the opposition’s players to almost uniformly put forth an A-plus performance, and even then it likely will require some luck (in the form of injuries, foul trouble, etc.) on the opponent’s side. Duke’s standing as the favorite to win this tournament hasn’t (or, more accurately, shouldn’t) have changed as a result of a uniquely bad matchup with a UCF team that no one wanted to see in the second round.

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