A Sweet Sixteen showdown between two storied college basketball programs like Duke and Syracuse should have all the makings of a classic. But rather than the kind of high-scoring affairs reminiscent of their two showdowns in 2015, this Friday night matchup is more likely to be a defensive battle of wills.
Duke heads into the Midwest regional semifinal looking like perhaps the favorite to win the national title after a sheer dismissal of Rhode Island that saw the Rams shoot just 39.7 percent as the Blue Devils romped to an 87-62 victory thanks to the incredible height and length within their 2-3 zone.
Speaking of zones, Syracuse (who had to win a play-in game to even make the field of 64) used the signature Boeheim zone defense to disrupt Michigan State. The Spartans shot a horrendous 25.8 percent from the field, including just 8-for-37 from the three-point arc. The Orange held freshman phenom and potential top 5 draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr. to just two points, while fellow standout Miles Bridges was just 4-of-18 for the game.
So if both teams are looking to establish defense as their calling card, what can fans expect from this game in the way of excitement? Blatantly put, it may not be much. With both the Blue Devils and the Orange looking to pack the paint, both teams are likely going to have to do the majority of their offensive damage from the perimeter.
Given that the two teams combined to shoot just 8-for-43 combined from beyond the arc in their February matchup (a 60-44 Duke win), both backcourts are going to need to look to get the ball inside in order to get separation and kick outs for easier looks from deep. Luckily, both teams possess the playmakers necessary for this kind of action.
Once again, Grayson Allen is going to act as the primary ball handler for the Blue Devils. Allen has said numerous times throughout the tournament that he feels more comfortable in his leadership role than ever, so look for him to be aggressive and shooting early and often while also trying to get out and look for Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III in transition.
For the Orange, it is imperative that junior guard Frank Howard is a difference maker. Howard fouled out late against Michigan State, but Syracuse will need his diverse skill set on the floor at all times against a long and athletic Duke zone that covers a lot of ground.
And, of course, the Orange will need a strong performance from leading scorer Tyus Battle. The sophomore guard has been pressing as of late, but it is likely that he will need to force the issue again on Friday evening, as he is the go-to scorer for Syracuse at the end of the shot clock and certainly their best one-on-one player. And you can expect that both the Blue Devils and the Orange will use most of the clock on their offensive possessions.
The X-factor for Duke may be Gary Trent Jr. The freshman shot just 1-for-6 from beyond the arc in the first matchup between the two teams, but he has been fantastic thus far in the tournament, knocking down four threes in wins over Iona and Rhode Island. His ability to stretch the defense alongside Allen will be pivotal in forcing extra rotations and creating space for Carter and Bagley to eat on the boards.
And, in the scheme of things, the rebounding battle is what may decide the game. The Blue Devils have a decisive edge here, as both Bagley and Carter are absolutely relentless on the offensive glass while also having the agility to challenge shots and secure defensive rebounds. Even when one of that double-headed monster exits, Javin DeLaurier provides solid defense and rebounding for Duke.
If Syracuse hopes to hold onto the magic slipper, they will need to force tough contested shots while also getting team box outs of Duke’s big men. Even if the Blue Devils struggle from beyond the arc (as they did in the first matchup), their performance on the boards could propel them to a victory.
Do not be surprised if Boeheim is a bit more creative with his lineups against Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski, maybe giving more playing time to Bourama Sidibe to pair with the likes of Oshae Brissett and Marek Dolezaj, just to give the Orange added length on the inside.
Ultimately, however, this encore matchup simply seems too favorable for the Blue Devils. Unlike the Spartans, they have played against the Syracuse zone before, and will undoubtedly find a way to establish Carter and Bagley whether it be in the paint or on the glass. An Orange team that struggles to score efficiently is just not a good recipe against a Duke zone that seems to fly all over the court and force contested shot. In all likelihood, it will be the Blue Devils rolling on to the regional final.
But this is March Madness, and crazier things have happened…