The college basketball world knighted Duke this year’s national champion when it humiliated Kentucky on opening night. Through the first four games the Devils have looked unstoppable and easily have a case as the best team in the country. Although this team has only played a handful of games together, they’ve already been compared to Michigan’s Fab Five and the legendary UNLV Running Rebels of the Jerry Tarkanian era.
The crazy thing is, Duke has the potential to live up to those expectations. The Blue Devils have projected top NBA picks in RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish. They are surrounded by players like Tre Jones and Marques Bolden, as well as other outstanding role players. So far, the Blue Devils are living up to the hype by winning their first five games by an average margin of 25.2 points, and fans are buzzing about a potential undefeated season.
Well, not so fast.
On Wednesday, the Gonzaga Bulldogs will prove the Blue Devils are not impossible to beat. Gonzaga comes into the Maui Invitational Final as a four-point underdog but will be Duke’s toughest test. The Zags are one of the few teams in the country that can matchup with the ultra-athletic Duke starting lineup, and have the veteran experience and talent to overcome Duke’s young and at-times erratic freshmen.
The Zags are a well-balanced team ranking fifth in offensive efficiency per KenPom, and can match Duke’s offensive output. In addition, Gonzaga has the length to be able to defend Duke, and the depth to be able to keep up with the Blue Devils. Here’s what the Bulldogs need to do to return to Spokane as tournament champions, likely with a number one next to their name:
Keep Duke out of transition
This task is a lot easier said then done, but it’s something Gonzaga is going to need to do. It is essentially impossible to stop the Blue Devils while they are in transition; Barrett, Reddish, Jones, and Williamson can all handle the ball well and fly down the court. Duke uses this advantage to get a lot of easy buckets. The best way to limit transition opportunities is to be efficient on the offensive end since Duke can’t run if it’s picking the ball up under the basket. Auburn got in trouble in the first half of yesterday’s loss after taking many bad three-point shot attempts that resulted in long rebounds allowing Duke to execute its transition game. Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins needs to be smart with the basketball and limit turnovers. If he can do this, the Zags will have a great chance to limit Duke’s extensive offensive output.
Force Duke to shoot three’s
What has normally been a strength for Coach K’s team is a weakness for this juggernaut. Duke is shooting 37.2 percent from behind the arc on the season despite a shooting nearly 50 percent in its opening game against Kentucky. Barrett, Reddish and Jones were touted as talented shooters but they have not shown consistency shooting the deep ball in college thus far. The Zags need to keep Duke out of the paint and make them make their shots from deep.
Play physical and make Duke earn it at the free throw line
The best way to beat a team like Duke is to make the game ugly. We know Mark Few is willing to do that. It may seem crazy to try and out physical a player like Williamson, but sometimes the big bullies quiver after you punch in them in the mouth a couple times. The Zags have to be willing to match Duke’s physicality on the interior. Forward Rui Hachimura should be able to guard Williamson, and the Zags shouldn’t be afraid to put the Blue Devils on the free throw line since they are shooting just 63 percent from the charity stripe.
Gonzaga’s stars must shine
Two X factors for Gonzaga could be Perkins and Hachimura. Gonzaga has an advantage having the best floor general on the floor as Perkins is better than Jones plain and simple. Perkins will be able to pressure the young point guard on the defensive end, and will be a matchup problem for Jones on the offensive end. Perkins needs to consistently put the Zags’ offense in a position to succeed. The Zags’ offense flows when Perkins is playing well. Perkins led the charge during Gonzaga’s second half run against Arizona, however, his seven turnovers in a win over Illinois almost cost the Zags a win. The senior point guard is the last starting member of Gonzaga’s Final Four team, and currently ranks third nationally in assists averaging 8.5 dishes a game.
On the other side, Hachimura’s matchup with Williamson is the individual showdown everyone will be watching. The Zags will need a star-studded performance from their best player to beat Duke on Wednesday. Hachimura will be asked to limit the South Carolina-born freight train, as well as dominate on the offensive end of the floor. The future NBA lottery pick will be up to the task. Hachimura is averaging 22.8 points while shooting 60 percent from the floor this season, and look for him to provide constant scoring production in the paint and and give Williamson all he can handle on the defensive end.