It’s one of the most anticipated non-conference matchups in recent memory and occurs during perhaps the most anticipated season in the Tubby Smith era. His best team gets the chance to go up against America’s Most Hated in the sunny Bahamas to really see where the guys are at. The Gophers come in as a slight underdog but, as we know, are no strangers to slaying Goliath in non-conference games.
Dick Vitale was unavailable (apparently his lunch plans with Coach K got in the way), but we were able to pry Adam Rowe (Duke Hoop Blog) away from covering afternoon flopping practice to answer a few questions and give us an idea of what to expect in tomorrow’s Battle 4 Atlantis showdown. Check out our input at Duke Hoop Blog as well.
FTB: Duke has a lot of weapons from top to bottom and can hurt teams in plenty of ways. What do you think is their biggest strength and how do you see that playing out against the Gophers?
DHB: The Blue Devils have shown a balanced attack so far in this young season, but the two guys that have been leading the way so far are Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry. There has been more of an emphasis this year on feeding the ball in the post than at any time since the Shelden Williams days, and it’s shown in Plumlee’s stats. He’s averaging 21.7 points per game, good for 29th best in the country, and 8.7 rebounds per game. With Seth Curry troubled by a lingering right shin injury, look for the focus to remain on funneling the offense through Plumlee and if he can’t finish kicking out to open shooters on the perimeter. Duke plays a 4-out, 1-in look on offense for the most part when Plumlee’s in. If he experiences foul trouble like he did against Kentucky, look for the offense to spread out even more and create driving lanes or attempt to get open looks from deep for the guards and wings. Curry, Rasheed Sulaimon, Tyler Thornton and Quinn Cook are all shooting over 33% from deep and if Ryan Kelly can find his shot that gives Duke four shooters who are a threat to score at any time if Minnesota’s defenders commit to Plumlee down low.
FTB: On the other hand, they also have some weaknesses. What are some of their vulnerabilities that you’re worried about being exposed on Thursday?
DHB: Duke has had some trouble taking care of the ball early this season, only 137th best in the country with a turnover percentage of 19.9%. Minnesota’s defense has been excellent thus far this season, and they are 53rd best in the country at forcing turnovers. Of course, this is a small sample size and Minnesota hasn’t exactly played a murderer’s row schedule, but Duke will definitely need to be aware of this to avoid the upset.
FTB: The first round loss to Lehigh last year had to hurt. What’s the feeling like in Durham this year heading into the season?
DHB: The entire postseason last year hurt for Duke fans, but there is a sense that this team is fresh and ready to live up to its potential. Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry have stepped up into their leadership roles and the team is moving the ball much better this season than they were last. While perimeter defense was the main talking point about Duke heading into the season, the Blue Devils finished 284th in the country last year in Assist Percentage. Through 3 games this year, they’re 27th.
FTB: The Gophers come into this game as the obvious underdog. What do they need to do pull off the upset against the Blue Devils?
DHB: I don’t know about “obvious” underdog. Ken Pomeroy has this as a 1-point game, the closest margin for any of Duke’s remaining projected victories. I think the Gophers are severely underrated by pollsters and this game is a chance for them to make their presence known to the college basketball media. If Duke doesn’t take care of the ball and Mason Plumlee can’t stay out of foul trouble, there is a real chance this game could get away from them quickly.
FTB: We’ve had this game circled on our calendars for a long time. How do you think this ends up playing out?
DHB: I think it will come down to the wire honestly. The defensive matchup for Ryan Kelly on Trevor Mbakwe could be the difference maker and if Tubby decides to go big with Mbakwe at the small forward position, either Alex Murphy or Amile Jefferson will need to step up in a big way because Sulaimon will not be a good matchup giving up 3-4 inches.
I’ll take Duke in a 6-point win, 82-76 but it will be much closer than that.