|Who: Duke (31-4) vs. Michigan (21-13)|
|Where: Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte, NC|
|When: ~2:45 ET, Sunday, March 20th (30 mins after UNC/UW)|
|TV: CBS / Online Streaming|
|Radio: MGoBlue / WTKA 1050 AM|
|More NCAA Tournament Coverage|
Two years ago, Michigan upset Duke at home and rode the ensuing wave of momentum to its first NCAA tournament berth in over a decade. Now, the Wolverines have an opportunity to advance to the Sweet 16 by upsetting the Blue Devils again. The stage is set with a mid-afternoon nationally exclusive tip off on CBS and excessive newspaper stories surrounding three lines from Jalen Rose’s Fab Five documentary circling through the newspapers. Plenty of eyeballs will be tuned in for this one. A Michigan win would be monumental, a loss means one of the most surprising Michigan seasons in quite some time concludes in Charlotte.
Mike Krzyzewski brought back 59% of last year’s national championship team and added one of the best guards in the country in Kyrie Irving. Repeat championships are rare in college basketball but Duke was the unanimous selection for preseason No. 1. The season derailed ever so slightly when Kyrie Irving suffered a turf toe injury nine games into the year. The talk went from “perfect season” to “how good is Duke without Kyrie?”. The answer is not nearly as good, but still good enough to earn a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. The wrinkle: Kyrie Irving returned to action on Friday.
Despite losing Kyrie for two thirds of the season, Ken Pomeroy still ranks Duke as the second best team in the nation. With Kyrie back in the lineup the expectations in Durham are repeat or bust. The first thing that stands out when you see Duke in person is that they are really tall. Ken Pomeroy ranks Duke sixth in effective height and 19th in average height. The Blue Devil starting line up demonstrates the dramatic front court height advantage with Kyle Singler (6-8), Mason Plumlee (6-10) and Miles Plumlee (6-10). There’s no 7-footer like Zoubek in the middle but there’s still a lot of size across the board considering Duke’s starting three-man is the same height as Michigan’s starting five.
Singler is averaging 17 points and seven rebounds per game this season but his three point shooting percentage is down 8% this year at just 31.9%. The 6-foot-10 Plumlee brothers anchor the post and while they aren’t key cogs of the Duke offense they are terrific rebounders. Mason grabs 25% of opponents’ missed shots while on the floor and Miles excels on the offensive glass, pulling down 14% of Duke’s missed shots during his playing time. Ryan Kelly is the third front court option and at 6-foot-10 he isn’t nearly as good of a rebounder but isn’t scared to step back and shoot a three, connecting on 22 of his 66 triples. Nolan Smith is a wired scorer that has developed into an effective point guard as well. Duke’s other two primary guards are pure shooters but they do it well. Seth Curry makes 44% of his 3’s and Andre Dawkins connects on 43% of his long range attempts. Kyrie Irving is the game changer, he’s an efficient scorer and setup man but most of all he’s one of the best guards in the country at pushing the ball in transition, a deadly combination with Duke’s multitude of great perimeter shooters.
With so much height in the front court, it should come as no surprise that Duke is a good rebounding team. However they are much better on the offensive glass, ranking 2nd in the ACC, than on the defensive glass where they rank 10th in the league. The most obvious benefit of Duke’s size is in field goal percentage defense. ACC opponents shot just 42% on twos and 30% on threes for a 43% effective field goal percentage, all of those are ACC-bests. If you are looking for a comparison in the Big Ten, look no further than Illinois. The Blue Devils won’t turn you over that often (7th ACC) but they just make it extremely difficult to find and make open shots. Michigan will need to execute its offense extremely well to get open looks against Duke’s bigger players.
Tennessee was a big team that couldn’t shoot while Duke is a big team that can shoot. Duke’s season shooting numbers are impressive, ranking as the 17th best shooting team in the nation. The Blue Devils 54% effective field goal percentage is made up of 52% two point and 38% three point shooting. As mentioned, Duke does a great job on the offensive glass, rebounding 35% of its missed shots. The Blue Devils also take care of the basketball as well as anyone with a turnover rate of just 17%. You have to look deep into Duke’s statistical profile to find a weakness but a close enough look reveals the slightest chink in the armor. The Blue Devils didn’t shoot the three ball well in ACC play, making just 33.7% (8th ACC) of their three point attempts in ACC games. Duke’s three point shooting percentages in its four losses were 31.4%, 22.2%, 20% and 19%. The Blue Devils are still good enough to win some games without making threes but they are too good to lose when they are making threes.
Three point defense and defensive rebounding appear to be the Wolverine priorities in this game. Michigan needs to match its herculean rebounding effort from Friday and hope that Duke misses just enough threes to allow Michigan to hang around. Nolan Smith said that Duke needs to "be who we’ve been” and that couldn’t be more true for Michigan as well. This game tips off 48 hours after Michigan’s best performance of the season and the Wolverines are peaking at the right time. Duke is one of the best teams that Michigan has faced all season but Michigan has also faced teams as good as Duke. The Wolverines need to play their game and execute, putting aside the big stage, pro-Duke crowd, and importance of the game.
This is the opportunity that Michigan has worked for all season. It’s also an opportunity that any neutral observer would have deemed impossible two, three or four months ago. Now it’s time to make the most of it. Pomeroy projects a 73-61 Duke win and gives Michigan a 13% chance of advancing to the Sweet 16. Undoubtedly slim odds but this is March and we know all too well that anything can happen.