Could Coach K go out with another national title, and what’s at stake for Virginia basketball against Duke?

Imagine it (or fear it): Mike Krzyzewski lifting the NCAA championship trophy on April 4, a storybook ending to a legendary college basketball coaching career that has spanned 47 seasons and would, in this scenario, include a sixth national title. And his Duke Blue Devils could just deliver it to him. The 2021-22 version of Coach K’s team is currently at the top of the ACC standings – and a projected 3-seed come Selection Sunday.

Before the postseason march begins, Wednesday night’s trip to Charlottesville to face the Virginia Cavaliers (7 pm ET, ESPN and ESPN App) represents a chance for revenge for the Blue Devils, who lost to UVa by just a point at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb 7. For Tony Bennett’s squad, meanwhile, this game is mission critical for the NCAA tournament hopes of the 2019 champs, who are also mathematically alive for what would be their fourth ACC title in five years.

With that in mind, ESPN’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi made their predictions for Wednesday’s Sonic Blockbuster matchup, and they also offered their assessment of both teams’ postseason viability.


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Mark Williams gets up for the jam with help from Paolo Banchero

Where is Duke on your current short list of national title contenders? Which single Blue Devil do you think will be most critical to this team’s title push over the next six weeks?

Medcalf: For me, Duke could win the national championship. But I don’t think they’re in the top group yet.

The list of teams that could win a national championship is a lot shorter than it was a month ago. The ones with a serious shot: Kentucky, Gonzaga and Arizona are beginning to separate themselves from the pack. Duke, Auburn and Purdue are next. I think the national champion will probably emerge from that collection of teams. Nothing against Baylor and Kansas, but I think both could fall short of a Final Four run this season.

I think the most important player for Duke will be Paolo Banchero. When we think about the NCAA tournament, we focus on the stars. The role players matter and sometimes lead their teams on big runs, but this is a critical moment for the projected top-10 pick in this summer’s NBA draft. Duke will go as far as Banchero can take them. Oscar Tshiebwe, Ochai Agbaji, Chet Holmgren, Bennedict Mathurin, Jabari Smith and Jaden Ivey could all stand between him and the Final Four. Banchero just has to match that star power and show up when the lights come on in March to give Duke a shot at ending Coach K’s reign with a national title.

Borzello: I think Gonzaga, Kentucky and Arizona are probably my top tier of title contenders, and then Duke headlines that next group, that second tier. The Blue Devils’ ceiling is as high as any team’s in college basketball because of their next-level talent, their ability to defend the ball and the rim and the presence of Banchero. I also think they’ve found something that works with Trevor Keels and Wendell Moore Jr. handling most of the playmaking duties and AJ Griffin in the starting lineup instead of Jeremy Roach. Moore and Keels are capable initiators and ball handlers, while Griffin is an elite shooter. It also gives Duke one of the bigger lineups in college basketball.

It sounds obvious, but I think the Blue Devils’ title hopes hinge on Banchero. He is the team’s best player, the guy who will likely have the ball in his hands di lui in late-game, late-clock situations. And that’s been a bit of a trouble spot for Duke, which has led in the final 65 seconds of all four of its losses this season. Banchero’s outside shot hasn’t come along as expected so far this season, and his midrange game di lui has been inconsistent too; if his jumper di lui starts falling consistently, though, he becomes pretty much unguardable at the college level. A three-level scorer with his size and passing ability? Yes, that’s the ultimate X factor like March.

Gasaway: When the NCAA previewed the bracket this past weekend, we learned that the selection committee had the Blue Devils pegged as the last No. 2 seed. Feels about right. That’s a solid national title contender, but not necessarily one in the very top tier. So let’s put Duke among the “next four out” among possible champs. The thing that’s intriguing about this group is that, as young as they are, they already play excellent defense. If you ranked every offense and defense in the ACC as individual units in conference play, Krzyzewski’s defense would be No. 1 by a healthy margin. (No. 2? Wake Forest’s D.)

With that in mind, I’ll take Mark Williams as my Most Critical to Success Award winner. He is an outstanding rim defender, of course, but he and Paolo Banchero also do most of the defensive rebounding for a team that isn’t all that great at defensive rebounding. Plus, part of Duke’s excellence on D has been out of its control: ACC opponents have missed a ton of 3s against the Blue Devils. When that changes, and it will, Williams doing his defensive thing in the paint will become even more critical.

Lunardi: It’s impossible to ignore the storyline of a swan song NCAA title for Coach K and the Blue Devils. But I’m not buying it – at least not yet. It’s quite possible Duke runs the table and wins the ACC tournament, but what would that really mean? This year, it would be the equivalent of winning the Mountain West or maybe the American. Good, for sure, but nowhere near great.

When exactly have the Blue Devils been “great” this season? As in, great enough to win a national championship? The win over Gonzaga, for sure, and close in the very early win over Kentucky. At North Carolina? Yes, but that was tempered by the inconsistency of the opponent. Does a national champion Duke team lose at a then-healthy Florida State? Maybe. But those Blue Devils don’t lose at home to Miami and definitely not again at home to this year’s version of Virginia.

All of which is to say that the Blue Devils are barely on my list of national championship contenders. And that should be good news to Duke fans everywhere.


Are Virginia’s NCAA tournament hopes finished without a win on Wednesday? What’s the formula for the Cavaliers beating Duke?

Medcalf: We’re having this conversation because of the respect Tony Bennett has earned throughout his career. But if you get rid of the brand name, you’re left with a team that entered the week with a NET ranking in the 80s and a résumé that includes losses against NC State, James Madison and Navy. And I think most would agree only a conference tournament title would give the Cavaliers a shot at the NCAA tournament. I think that’s true for Virginia if it loses to Duke on Wednesday.

In their first matchup earlier this season, Wendell Moore Jr. and Paolo Banchero combined to shoot 6-for-17. Bennett has always been able to force “the other guys” to try to beat him, and he did that at Cameron Indoor Stadium three weeks ago. That was Duke’s only loss in a nine-game stretch, though. The Blue Devils are a more focused team now. But Virginia has been offensively efficient in recent games, with Jayden Gardner really playing some beautiful basketball down the stretch. I think there’s a better chance of Virginia stalling Duke’s stars again and winning this game than going to Brooklyn and winning the ACC tournament title. This feels like a must-win game for Bennett’s squad.

Medcalf score prediction: Duke 67, Virginia 60

Borzello: Tony Bennett’s club has done a commendable job even getting into the at-large conversation, winning five of its past six games – including road victories versus Duke and Miami. But without another win over the Blue Devils on Wednesday (or a deep run in the ACC tournament), it’s hard to see the Cavaliers having a real chance at hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. The top-of-the-line wins over Duke and Providence are nice, but the Cavaliers are still just 3-5 against Quadrant 1 opponents, and they have three Quadrant 3 losses on top of that. Their NET is in the 80s, and their metrics are generally below average for a bubble team. So Virginia needs this win.

That said, the Cavaliers also showed a couple of weeks ago that they have what it takes. So when you ask what the formula is, they already know it, in theory: Slow the tempo, pack the lane, force Duke to shoot perimeter jumpers, take care of the ball and try to get Mark Williams in foul trouble. Forcing the Blue Devils to play entirely in the half court and mostly away from the rim – making it difficult to generate consistent momentum – is the way to go on Wednesday. Easier said than done, of course.

B.orzello score prediction: Duke 66, Virginia 58

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Jayden Gardner with the and-1 bucket

Gasaway: Yes. Finished. The road win against Duke and the neutral-floor victory over Providence look fantastic. The win at Miami also is nice. Elsewhere on the profile, though, Virginia is lugging around a 3-3 record in Quadrant 3 games, and a loss at home against the Blue Devils would drop this team to 17-11. The NET is practically waving its arms and yelling that it’s highly suspicious of the Cavaliers; and for a group that beat the Blue Devils and Friars, it is surprisingly lackluster in terms of strength of record. They need this win – or a run in the ACC tournament. If it comes to that, the most valuable opponents to vanquish could turn out to be Wake Forest, North Carolina or, naturally, Coach K’s guys.

Gasaway score prediction: Duke 63, Virginia 59

Lunardi: Thank goodness for Providence or we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. In every way, Virginia profiles as an NIT team. And that’s exactly what the Cavaliers will be, although a second win over Duke would move the needle enough to keep the Cavs relevant through the ACC tournament.

Lunardi score prediction: Duke 68, Virginia 64

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