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After last week’s victory over Kentucky, West Virginia forward Wellington Smith exclaimed that that game was essentially the national title game. Don’t tell that to Duke, one of the most consistent programs in college basketball, a Final Four contender nearly every year. This season, the Blue Devils were not considered much of a national title threat, but they have rolled off wins in 16 of their last 17 games to reach Indianapolis. On the other side, West Virginia has won 10 games in a row, including a Big East tournament title and an East region championship. The Mountaineers have been playing arguably the best basketball in the country over the past few weeks, but they will need to continue that against an experienced Duke team that will not be intimidated.
If West Virginia is going to continue to overcome its lack of guards and true post scorers or perimeter shooting and get to the national championship, the Mountaineers are going to need to rely on their defense. Their zone defense created problems for the talented and explosive Kentucky offense, and John Wall and co. never really got going offensively. They shot horrendously from behind the arc, but West Virginia can’t expect Duke to have the same inaccuracies from three-point range. Duke is one of the most effective three-point shooting teams in the country, and the Mountaineers will have to be sure to utilize their size on the perimeter to disrupt the Blue Devils’ shooting. Another key on the defensive end will be boxing out. Brian Zoubek and co. lead one of the best offensive rebounding groups in the country, one that grabbed 23 offensive boards in the Elite Eight against Baylor. West Virginia will have to keep Duke off the offensive glass. On the offensive side, West Virginia has to knock down perimeter shots like it did against Kentucky. The Mountaineers won’t hit like they did in the first half against the Wildcats, but they will need to knock down a couple so the defense can’t sag off and only focus on guarding the lane. Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks will likely have a size advantage on whoever defense them, so they need to go down low. Likewise, Kevin Jones and Wellington Smith have to drag Zoubek and Lance Thomas away from the basket, opening up opportunities for West Virginia’s second-rated offensive rebounding group.
On the other side, Duke has to continue to rely on its strengths to get to the title game. The Blue Devils are an excellent three-point shooting team that crashes the offensive glass and gets second-chance points around the rim. That is what they do when they win games, and that is what they need to do against West Virginia. Kentucky couldn’t knock perimeter shots against the West Virginia zone, but Duke has shooters like Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler to exploit the openings and gaps in the defense. Moreover, Nolan Smith has to find a way to get inside the zone and create shots. He is the more explosive penetrator on Duke, and his ability to get into the paint against the West Virginia defense will be key. Zoubek also has to be able to get second opportunities against the long and athletic West Virginia frontline. Getting a thin West Virginia team into foul trouble will also help. On the defensive end, Duke has to box out. West Virginia has a laundry list of combo forwards that can crash the glass and get lay-ups off of offensive rebounds. The Mountaineers grab a ridiculous 41.9 percent off their possible offensive rebounds; Duke can’t allow that to occur. The Blue Devils also have to limit Da’Sean Butler. If he gets going early, he is very difficult to slow down. Another key for Duke will be getting back in transition defense. Joe Mazzulla beat Kentucky downcourt several times in the Elite Eight, creating shots for himself and his teammates.
The difference in this game will be West Virginia’s defense. The Mountaineers’ ability at that end of the floor has created havoc for every team they have played so far. They slowed down a pressing Missouri team, dominated the second half against an up-tempo Washington team and then completely shut down Kentucky. While Duke can knock down perimeter shots, I don’t think the Blue Devils will get enough clear looks or second chances to beat the Mountaineers.
Prediction: West Virginia 69, Duke 64