Game 38: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 2 Duke – Preview and Prediction

About Duke: Coach K’s Blue Devils are college basketball’s most talented team, boasting the top spot in the preseason poll and riding it to a 29-7 record. Duke had its occasional hiccups, such as stunning losses to Boston College and St. John’s, but it has accomplished what everyone thought it would: a deep tournament run after a successful regular season.

Duke is great on the offensive end in just about all aspects, and over the past month thanks to a new zone scheme, has shored up its defensive liabilities in a hurry. As a result, the Blue Devils enter Sunday’s contest having won 10 of their last 12 games. They are huge inside, ultra-athletic, and among the best teams in the nation at staying out of foul trouble, which is big considering how thin they are on the bench. They can score with the best of any team, and when their three-point barrage is hitting, they’re extremely difficult to beat.

Game Info and Notes:

  • Sunday, March 25th at 4:05 pm
  • CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.
  • CBS or March Madness App
  • Bill Self is 2-1 against Duke, but the Jayhawks are just 4-7 against the Blue Devils in their history.
  • We all know the ugly number: Bill Self is 2-5 in Elite Eight games at Kansas (2-7 overall). On the flip side, Coach K is 12-2. Kansas hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2012.
Blue Devils to Watch

Marvin Bagley III – 6’11” freshman, forward

Bagley is one of the best three players in college basketball. Think Texas Kevin Durant, but bigger and even better around the rim. He’s probably the best finisher in the country, but he can score from anywhere on the court, even posting a 39% three-point rate. Free throw shooting is his weakness; he’s just a 63% shooter from the stripe, but it’s not like Kansas has a bunch of depth to throw in there if they get in foul trouble.

You’re almost guaranteed to see Bill Self throw a bunch of junk defenses at Bagley to avoid anybody from covering him 1-on-1. However, should Kansas choose to play man-to-man, Svi Mykhailiuk would be my guess to be the guy that sticks nearby. Bagley is incredibly physical, and he will all but surely try to get Udoka Azubuike in foul trouble to change Kansas’ strategy. That’s why I think you see Bill Self try to zone or triangle-and-two Duke to prevent foul trouble and limit the damage inside.

Grayson Allen – 6’5″ wing, senior

The most controversial player in college basketball, Allen’s numbers have fallen a bit as he’s become more of a facilitator to his talented freshmen teammates. Still shooting 38% on threes, Allen is a dangerous deep-shooter on a very high volume. He’s coming off a game when he was 3-for-14, so he will certainly fare better against Kansas, but that’s proof that he can be a bit of a liability if he keeps shooting when they’re not falling.

Allen is difficult to guard because he can bring the ball up like a point guard, making it even more likely I think Kansas plays zone for most of this contest. He’s the token image of the player that comes alive and buries Kansas in March, but while he’s a good shooter, he just hasn’t been in that elite category this year. He’s made up for that by being a great defender and a smarter teammate.

Wendell Carter Jr. – 6’10” forward, freshman

Carter is the de-facto center for the Blue Devils even though he’s shorter than Bagley, posting 14 points and almost 10 rebounds per contest. He’s an absolute beast on the offensive glass, and his ability to avoid picking up fouls on the other end is incredible. Like Bagley, he’s a great finisher at the rim who can also step out and hit jumpers. The two come together to form college basketball’s toughest frontcourt.

Prediction (Audio Preview, 71-minute mark of podcast: LINK)

Here’s the thing.

Duke is outstanding and presents a very challenging matchup for Kansas. You’ve heard the experts talk about it all week. I have no idea how the Jayhawks are going to stop Bagley and Carter. I don’t know if they’ll be able to force enough turnovers. And of course, nobody knows if the three-pointers are going to be falling. Bill Self is going to scheme up some crazy stuff that will help, but Duke is going to get its points, and if Kansas wants to win, they’re going to have to do it shootout-style. Neither team has much depth inside, so fouls should be at a premium and the tempo should be very fast.

I almost think it helps Kansas to draw Duke instead of Syracuse. The Jayhawks will be absolutely locked in. They’ve lost in this round two years in a row. There’s no overlooking a team like the Blue Devils. Devonte’ Graham’s back is against the wall, and I think he’ll break out of his slump and have a big shooting day for his team.

If you want matchup stuff, Duke’s zone will be challenged against Kansas’ four-guards-who-can-all-shoot-threes lineup. Kansas’ offense has been great against zones this year, and I don’t see this being much different. There will be driving lanes, and Udoka Azubuike, despite Bagley and Carter’s presence, will still be the biggest and most physical player on the floor. The Jayhawks will need to be active on offense, as sharp passing and setting good ball screens is enormous against a zone.

This pick comes down to one thing and one thing only: these are the games that Bill Self’s teams just win. I’m aware of the Elite Eight record. But that’s a seven-game sample size. It feels like in his tenure, all they’ve done is win 80% of these games. They’ve won how many in a row with both teams in the top 10? Well, this is one of them. Duke presents some challenges that it’s hard to see Kansas effectively stopping. Udoka Azubuike has to avoid foul trouble. At least two of KU’s four guards have to be hitting threes. There are questions. But in the end, I’m going with experience to beat elite talent and behind a big game from Devonte’ Graham, Kansas finally kicks the door down and gets back to the Final Four.

Kansas 84 – Duke 76

Ryan Landreth

I’m a recent graduate of MidAmerica Nazarene University. In addition to writing for Rock Chalk Blog, I host the Inside the Paint podcast that covers KU basketball, and I write for Royals Review in the summer. My grandma has had season tickets to Jayhawk basketball for 30 years, and I have the privilege of going to most games with her.