2017-18 Elite 8 Preview: Kansas vs. Duke

(1) Kansas vs. (2) Duke

- Ky McKeon

Initial Thoughts: 

Hands down the best game of the Tournament – at least on paper – tips off on Sunday and features two bona fide blue blood college basketball programs. Duke rolled in its first two Tourney contests, but comes off a game against a scrappy Syracuse squad that stymied the Devils’ shooters from deep. Kansas finally started to look dominant in a Tourney game after struggling in Rounds 1 & 2, routing Clemson until the Tigers made a late run to cover the spread.

The historical narratives framing this game are plentiful. Combined, Kansas and Duke have an astounding 30 Final Four appearances to go with 8 National Championships; Bill Self and Coach K are two of the undisputed greatest coaches of all-time. Duke leads the all-time series between the two schools 7-4, but KU has taken the two most recent bouts. 

Kansas on Offense: Kansas boasts one of the best offenses in the country, able to score effectively from all crucial spots on the floor due in large part to its superior senior leader Devonte’ Graham. Graham has had himself a nice little Tournament thus far, averaging 17.7ppg & 6.3apg. Self wants to run his offense through Graham, primarily by way of the ball screen where the senior guard can attack the basket off the pick, pull up from deep, or dish to one of his 40%+ shooting teammates. His cohort, Malik Newman, has been unconscious through three Tourney games, averaging 18.3ppg on 8/17 from 3-point range. Together, the pair forms one of the most high-powered backcourts in the nation

How do you stop a high-powered backcourt? Sometimes you can’t, but running a zone can certainly help slow one down. About midway through the season, Coach K through his hands up in frustration at the young Dukies’ lack of defensive awareness and switched almost exclusively to playing zone on defense. The results have been tremendous. Duke is allowing just 0.791ppp when playing zone, the 28th best mark in the country and the #1 rate among teams who have played zone more than 30% of the time.

If you watched the Syracuse game, you probably noticed that Duke doesn’t play a traditional 2-3 zone – it’s more of a gelatinous cube, a defense that extends four players to the free-throw line extended and morphs to where the offense sets up:

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Take a look at how the Duke zone shifts to the ‘Cuse attack:

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And, to make it harder on the opposing team, Duke will often extend pressure out to half-court and trap on entry passes:

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Kansas ranks 40th in points per possession against zones this season (1.038ppp), and it’s seen its fair share of zones in the Big 12. Baylor’s 1-3-1 look probably most emulates the Duke zone out of any other scheme the Jayhawks have seen, as the zone is overloaded near the top of the key, leaving the basket protected by a single shot swatter. The question for Kansas becomes, who can be the zone buster? Graham and Newman are brilliant perimeter players, but KU is going to need a steady presence in the middle of the zone at the high post to consistently crack the Duke D. Mitch Lightfoot and Lagerald Vick have each spent time at this position this season, but neither of those names screams offensive efficiency.

Instead of constantly going toe-to-toe with the Devils in the half-court, you’re going to see Self try to get his guys to push the ball down the floor off misses and turnovers in an effort to beat the zone. Graham is masterful in transition, and will be looking to find easy threes on the run.

Duke on Offense: Before the Syracuse game, Duke was absolutely on fire from outside, shooting over 40% from deep in its first two Tourney games. But, weirdly, Duke hasn’t been able to hit the broadside of a barn against the Orange this season, combining to shoot 7/44 from the Land of Plenty in two tilts. The Devils aren't really reliant on the three to win ball games, but if KU shows zone, the Orange trend is slightly concerning.

Duke’s spread attack is designed to beat opposing defenses in several ways. The spacing allows drivers like Trevon Duval room to operate, creating open shots for his teammates or rim running opportunities off the bounce. Grayson Allen and Gary Trent are constant threats to pull from the outside, and they’re both excellent at maintaining proper spacing to force their defenders into a “help or don’t help situation”. Of course, Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter have been the two stalwarts of the offense, crushing defenders in the paint and on the glass all season.

If Kansas plays man-to-man, I don’t see how they can matchup with Duke. Udoka Azubuike is a bad-ass man, but he can’t guard Bagley and Carter at the same time, and a consistent attack from both of the Duke front men could spell foul trouble for Azubuike, who will be on an island under the rim fighting for boards off outside shot attempts. If Self goes with his recent four-guard lineup, Svi Mykhailiuk is going to be forced to guard Bagley, which could produce some laughable results. On the perimeter, I’ve already bashed Vick’s closeout defense, and Newman isn’t a world-beater at stopping his man one-on-one.

Considering this, I’d wager Kansas does show zone. The Jayhawks haven’t played a lot of zone this season, but they’ve busted it out against bigger teams. Self played zone nearly the entire game against Texas Tech, Kansas State, and Baylor this season, and even showed a bit versus TCU and Oklahoma State. While KU’s advanced stats say they are a “good” zone defensive team, games against those aforementioned squads haven’t gone well this season. KU dropped two contests to OSU, lost to Baylor and Texas Tech, and narrowly defeated KSU at home in one of their two matchups. A zone will definitely limit Duke’s driving and post-up opportunities, but it will also accentuate the rebounding disparity. The Devils are by far the best offensive rebounding team in the country, while Kansas was easily the worst defensive rebounding team in the Big 12 this season.

Whether Kansas zones or mans, you can expect a healthy dosage of transition play from Duke, a team that ranks 37th in the country in PPP in transition.

Key Factor(s): For Kansas, it’s two-fold: 1) on defense, can the Jayhawks keep the Devils off the glass and limit second-chance opportunities, and 2) on offense, can KU beat the Duke zone down the floor and score on the run.

Keys for Duke include 1) getting Azubuike in foul trouble – if he’s out, there’s no stopping the Devils inside, and 2) hitting outside shots. The latter is crucial because it spaces the floor for guys like Bagley and Carter to work within the paint. If KU zones, Duke will see plenty of three-point chances, just like they did against Syracuse.

Final Predictions: We’re in for a great game. These are two of the greatest college basketball programs of all-time and the talent level is top notch on both sides of the ball. Duke has the advantage in nearly every area and should be able to cover a tight spread, but Kansas has that “senior point guard factor” that always seems to trump matchups in March. I’ll go Duke to cover and the over in an exciting wire-to-wire game.

SU Pick: Duke
ATS Pick: Duke -3
O/U Pick: Over 155.5