Coach K's Blue Devils bully CS Fullerton, but a tougher tests loom against Michigan State
The outcome of Mike Krzyzewski’s final first-round game in the NCAA Tournament was all but a formality by the first media timeout. By then, Duke had streaked to a 15-4 lead, paced by the tenacious defense of Mark Williams and some slick ball movement from guards Wendell Moore Jr. and Jeremy Roach, who helped assure all of Duke’s first 5 baskets came off assists. It was vintage Duke basketball: a beautifully spaced floor, players making the extra pass, athletic and talented wings attacking the tin.
Cal State Fullerton fought gamely, of course, and actually trimmed the Duke lead to 6 late in the first half, but the Blue Devils never trailed, and whenever the Titans tried to throw a haymaker, Krzyzewski’s men had an answer.
The Duke team we saw Friday night in Greenville was the electric Duke team we saw so often in the regular season — dynamic and balanced offensively, with all 5 starters scoring in double figures and 21 assists on 30 made baskets. Duke also cleaned up on the glass and protected the bucket defensively, outrebounding the smaller Titans by 8 and swatting 10 Fullerton shots. Williams, who was Duke’s best player on a night when every starter put in a strong performance, had 5 blocks, looking every bit the part of a player who was one of the finalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award. Williams didn’t just do his damage defensively.
Duke passa de fase no #MarchMadness
17 PTS / 10 REB / 4 ASS / 1 STL / 2 BLK
50% FG / 2/4 3PT / 1/1 FT
10 PTS / 6 REB
44% FG / 2/7 3PT
— Space City 🚀 (@spacecitybr) March 19, 2022
He stuffed the stat sheet, adding 15 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, including the gem of a look to Paolo Banchero above, in a first-round performance that was the best evidence yet the Duke sophomore should be an NBA lottery pick this summer.
As for Duke’s star freshman, Banchero and Griffin appeared ready for this moment. Banchero had a “quiet” double-double, with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists. AJ Griffin added 10 points and 6 rebounds. Duke would like more from sharpshooter Trevor Keels, who struggled with 4 turnovers and shot just 3-of-7 from the field. But that’s nitpicking. All told, this was an impressive win for Duke, a first-round triumph where the outcome was never in doubt and Duke’s execution, not just its talent differential, won the day.
It will get harder Sunday against old rival Tom Izzo and Michigan State.
As great as the Blue Devils looked Friday night, the truth is Fullerton was the worst team left in the field by the time the game tipped off. The Titans arrived in Greenville ranked 150th in KenPom Adjusted Efficiency and had 0 wins against anyone inside the KenPom Top 100. If they had threatened Duke, it would have been cause for concern.
That gargantuan of a talent gap won’t exist Sunday in the Round of 32.
Duke will have a homecourt advantage, but Michigan State always travels well. Duke won’t be able to simply hope for an electric start and then put things on cruise control, as they did after the first media timeout Friday night.
Duke’s biggest concern? At times a wobbly Duke defense down the stretch will be tested by one of the nation’s best passing point guards in AJ Hoggard, who led the country in assist rate and assist to turnover ratio. In other words, a final Sweet 16 for Coach K is far from a guarantee.
Then again, there was an edge to Duke Friday night that’s been missing since before North Carolina ruined the Krzyzewski Cameron finale. Duke was communicating and slapping the floor on defense. The ball was moving. Players were smiling. Duke basketball was fun again.
When a team as talented as Duke plays fast and loose, look out. If anyone knows what a special formula that can be in March, it is Krzyzewski, the man coaching in March for the final time. For most of Friday night, Duke reminded us of why this month could be a special ride for the Blue Devils. Now they just have to do it again Sunday.