Cover photo: Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports
If anyone wants to know why the Duke Big Devils are the favorite to win the national championship, look no further than their freshmen big men duo of Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr.
They have changed the complexion of the game as two-way players this season. They are tough to stop offensively, and their defense can neutralize any team’s offense. Those two make it tough for other teams to play against Duke, and it’s a luxury Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski enjoys that most coaches don’t have.
The diaper dandies combined for 36 points in leading Duke to a 69-65 victory over the Syracuse Orangemen in the Midwest Region semifinals Friday night at CenturyLink Center. They made Syracuse 2-3 zone defense rather ineffective since it does not have the ability to offset big men, which was why they were the favorite to win this game. For every basket Duke needed, they passed it to their big men who threw it down.
Syracuse had no answers for them. They never had a chance since they don’t have the personnel to stop them. It’s hard to believe the Kansas Jayhawks, Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, Kansas State Wildcats, Florida State Seminoles and Michigan Wolverines have one, either. Those are the remaining teams that are in Duke’s way of a national title.
Bagley III helped Duke stay afloat when Syracuse was playing well by scoring nine of his 22 points in the first half, and he was the difference maker in the second half by scoring 13 of his 22 points and grabbing all of his seven rebounds in the second half, six of them were on the offensive end that led to second-chance baskets.
Carter was equally as effective by scoring 14 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. He was quick to grabbing loose balls, and he was opportunistic in getting eight of his defensive rebounds for every Syracuse miss.
Syracuse played Duke as well as they could. They shot 49 percent in this game, and they scored in the 60s to be in a position to win this game. It would have been good enough against any other team. It had to be frustrating no matter how well they played in the first half and how much they cut Duke’s lead to three, Duke always had an answer for them because of their big men.
Syracuse led Duke for the first 11 minutes of the game, but that meant nothing since Duke was playing well. When Syracuse went on a drought, Duke took advantage by scoring the last 10 points of the first half to give them a 34-27 lead at halftime.
When Syracuse cut the lead to three or four late in the game, the strategy was to foul one of Duke’s shooters not only to keep the game going, but to make sure Duke’s freshmen duo not have the ball and score.
Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. made Syracuse’s strategy go for naught. They combined to shoot free throws to put the game away for Duke.
On a night Duke shot 39 percent, it did not matter since their big men did most of their scoring. Yes, guards win games, but big men win games and championships.
It’s why Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was philosophical after the game when he mentioned their best wasn’t good enough. Deep down, he knew it wouldn’t matter how great his team played if Duke was playing well.
The lesson of Friday night’s Sweet 16 game is only Duke can beat themselves, not no one else. That means for any other survivors of the NCAA Tournament that want to beat Duke, they have to hope Duke has to have a rare bad game for 40 minutes.
Good luck to that. It’s going to be hard since Duke’s big men rarely have bad games. Those two are tough to defend, and they have the size and length to break down a defense and drive to the basket. Even if teams can have success against Bagley and Carter, Allen and Trent can have the ball through Duke’s big men and they can shoot from the perimeter. It’s pick your poison.
For all the feel-good stories the UMBC Retrievers, Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, Kansas State Wildcats and Nevada Wolf Pack created, the truth of the matter is March is Duke’s time of the year. The cream rises to the top, and Duke has showed they are going to be tough to beat.
Duke haters can pray and hope for the best.
It won’t be enough to stop Bagley and Carter from eventually cutting down the nets in San Antonio next Monday night.