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Duke-Kansas Could Hinge On Who Best Exploits The Mismatches

Will Duke’s size impose its will, or will Kansas expose slower defenders?

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina Upstate at Duke
How Duke utilizes freshman Kyle Filipowski could be the X-factor in Tuesday’s showdown against Kansas.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the season, everyone knew this Duke team would look different.

The absence of Coach K on the sideline is the difference that has dominated the media coverage, and rightly so. But another unusual element of this team may be more pivotal tonight: Duke’s size up front.

Freshmen Dereck Lively and Kyle Filipowski, both listed as 7-footers, were expected to play alongside each other to start the year. With Lively’s debut delayed by injury, Filipowski instead has started the Blue Devils’ first two games alongside 6-foot-10 center Ryan Young. And with Dariq Whitehead also out with injury, 6-foot-8 freshman Mark Mitchell has started the season playing on the wing despite being projected more naturally as a mobile power forward.

Regardless of what combination starts Tuesday night, that’s a frontcourt whose size that will feel right at home in an NBA arena.

Kansas’ starting group, meanwhile, is nearly antithetical. Excluding diminutive point guard Dajuan Harris Jr., the Jayhawks start four players listed between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8. Two of those four, Jalen Wilson and Gradey Dick, have started the season scorching hot from beyond the arc. The others, KJ Adams Jr. and Kevin McCullar, are solid and switchable defensively (Duke fans will remember McCullar from last year’s Sweet 16, when he was on Texas Tech).

Both lineup styles will present mismatches for most any opponent. Who wins tonight’s showdown could come down to who exploits that mismatch best.

When the Blue Devils are on offense, there will be major questions about whether the Jayhawks can keep them off the glass: Wilson is the only Jayhawk averaging more than 5.5 rebounds per game. When Young is in the contest, he’ll have a significant size advantage over most likely Kansas defenders, something he’s proven adept at turning into easy post buckets. Meanwhile, a pick-and-roll attack with Lively could prove devastating for the smaller Jayhawks, who likely will struggle to contest the hyper-athletic 7-foot-1 big at the rim.

But on the other end of the floor, those same Duke big men could have their own challenges. Adams, at least, has not shown an ability to stretch the floor, attempting (and missing) only one three pointer so far this season, meaning a Blue Devil big will likely take that assignment. But another Duke big, at least from the current starting lineup, will have to guard either Wilson or Dick, dragging that size away from the rim and leaving that player vulnerable to attack off the dribble.

No matter how you slice it, there will be mismatches aplenty in tonight’s contest, and which team best exploits them on offense while minimizing their impact defensively will likely leave Indianapolis victorious. That’s one reason why Vegas might be underestimating the underdog Blue Devils (Kansas is currently a 1.5 point favorite). While Kansas can’t match Duke’s size in the paint (the only Jayhawks taller than 6-foot-10, freshman Ernest Udeh Jr. and sophomore Zach Clemence, have combined to average just 17 minutes and 7 rebounds per game), the Blue Devils can deploy a switchable lineup when Jacob Grandison replaces one of the Duke bigs. Meanwhile, Dick has yet to show early in his freshman campaign that he can be more than “just a shooter”: 10 of his 24 shot attempts this season have come from beyond the arc, and he’s only shot three free throws. It’s possible that Filipowski can use his length to bother Dick’s shot from the perimeter while consciously conceding the paint; on the other end, Dick would likely require significant help if Filipowski gets the ball down low.

These mismatches will likely end up a subplot in ESPN’s coverage of the game with Jon Scheyer being under the microscope in his first marquee game as Duke’s head coach. But whether or not Blue Devil fans are happy with the end of the story might hinge on whether Scheyer can manipulate the matchups in his favor.