Duke vs. Arkansas: 10 biggest storylines in Elite 8 showdown
Arkansas advanced to the Elite 8 for the second consecutive year with a stirring upset win over Gonzaga on Thursday night. In defeating Gonzaga, the NCAA Tournament’s top overall seed, the Razorbacks became the first team in SEC basketball history to defeat a No. 1 team in the regular season and topple the top overall seed in the postseason. Pretty impressive stuff for a program still in just its third season under Eric Musselman.
While the Musselman era may just be getting started in Fayetteville, Duke, Arkansas’ opponent in the Elite 8, is near the end of an era. Legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski will retire at season’s end, which means every game the Blue Devils play could be his last, and the end of a 42-year reign at Duke which has seen the Blue Devils win 5 national championships. When you think of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball — not just the college game, but the sport — Krzyzewski is in the thick of the conversation. Duke hasn’t made a Final Four since the 2014-2015 season, which was also the year Krzyzewski won his 5th national championship. That’s not the 27 years and counting drought suffered at Arkansas, which last appeared on college basketball’s grandest stage in 1995, but it’s a long drought by the lofty standards of the Coach K era at Duke.
One team’s drought will end and the other’s continue Saturday evening in San Francisco.
Here are 10 things every Arkansas fan should know about Duke.
Mike Krzyzewski is seeking his 13th Final Four, which would break the tie with John Wooden
Krzyzewski, as noted above, has won 5 national championships. He’s also advanced to the Final Four 12 times, which leaves him tied with John Wooden for the most Final Four appearances of any coach in the history of college basketball.
Krzyzewski already holds NCAA Tournament records for games coached with 130 and wins with 100. Grab one more win, and he’s in a class all by himself in terms of Final Fours as well.
Duke has 3 players who initiate the offense; Gonzaga had 1 (Andrew Nembhard)
While Gonzaga is a finely tuned offensive machine and arrived in San Francisco with a top-3 offense in America, per KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency metric, Arkansas was able to frustrate Gonzaga’s rhythm by pressuring and playing physical with Gonzaga’s silky point guard, Andrew Nembhard.
The Florida transfer was familiar to Musselman, who knew from losing to him twice as a Gator that he had to be physical at the point of attack with the Gonzaga senior. Do that, and Nembhard, the head of the snake in Mark Few’s offense and Gonzaga’s assists leader by over 3 helpers a game, is less effective. Arkansas threw Au’Diese Toney and in switches, JD Notae, at Nembhard and the duo bottled him, forcing 5 turnovers against only 3 assists.
That was a master stroke by Musselman, and as long as Toney is on the floor, he’s going to create problems for Duke’s primary point guard, Jeremy Roach, who has already turned it over 8 times in 3 NCAA Tournament games.
The thing about Duke, however — and a big reason they were able to take down the nation’s best defense in Texas Tech in the Sweet 16 Thursday night — is that the Blue Devils have multiple players who initiate their offense. The 3 primary ball handlers: Roach, Wendell Moore Jr. and Paolo Banchero, all have at least 12 assists in the NCAA Tournament. Take one away, and Duke is more than content to rely on one of the others.
Of late, Duke mostly plays through Banchero, their future top-5 pick in the NBA Draft
Roach made the big shots against Michigan State, but Duke has played through the lottery-bound freshman Banchero more than ever over the past month. In his past 12 games, Banchero has averaged 4.5 assists a contest, operating as a high-post initiator. He consistently makes the right reads and the right plays when he has the ball, and his ability to pass from anywhere on the floor makes him a difference-making playmaker who you can’t really avoid mismatches against. Banchero has 12 assists in the NCAA Tournament and averaged 19 points a game, saving his best basketball for the end of his abbreviated college career.
But Banchero won’t be Duke’s only lottery pick
Arkansas won’t be bothered playing a team with a future top-5 pick. With wins over Jabari Smith and Auburn and Chet Holmgren and Gonzaga already in their back pocket, the Hogs have been there, done that, won the game, and watched Musselman take off his shirt.
The distinction with Duke? The Blue Devils have 2 lottery picks. AJ Griffin, the 6-6 wing who occasionally starts and occasionally comes off the bench for Duke, is a surefire top-10 pick thanks to his elite athleticism, size and absolute sniper’s stroke from deep. Griffin is shooting 45.4% on high volume from beyond the arc this season for Duke, and he’s yet to have a game in the NCAA Tournament like he did in the ACC Championship game, when he torched Miami for 21 points on a lethal 4-6 from long distance.
Beat Gonzaga, now face the best offense you’ve played all season
Arkansas is built on the DNA that the great 40 Minutes of Hell teams were built upon. They are relentless defensively, tough as nails, and tend to overwhelm their opponents in the second half, where they have outscored teams all season by a wide margin. The Hogs rank 11th nationally in KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, but that number is deceptive. BartTorvik, which also measures defensive efficiency, albeit with a slightly different algorithm, ranks Arkansas’ defense 5th-best in America over the past 12 games. Put plainly, this run has been built on getting stops and grinding out just enough points to win. It’s “best” vs. “best” Saturday, as the Blue Devils, whose offense ranks 2nd in America in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, will be the best offense the Hogs have played in 2021-22.
Like Arkansas, Duke has signature wins over Gonzaga and Kentucky
It is fitting that the West Region’s representative in the Final Four will be decided by two teams that have wins over the region and tournament’s top seed, Gonzaga. Duke bested the Zags on a neutral floor in November, led by 21 Banchero points and 20 from team captain Wendell Moore Jr. The Blue Devils also have a win over Kentucky, having defeated the Wildcats at Madison Square Garden in November. Arkansas took down the Wildcats in late February in Fayetteville. Duke didn’t play Auburn, so they don’t have wins over 3 teams that have been ranked in the top 5 or higher this season like Arkansas does. But these teams have played — and beaten — familiar opponents.
Duke big man Mark Williams has quietly been the Blue Devils’ star in the NCAA Tournament
Williams, who like Au’Diese Toney ranks in the top 10 nationally in defensive box plus/minus rating, has had a monster NCAA Tournament. The big man has 13 blocks through 3 games, meaning he’s just off the pace of Jeff Withey of Kansas, who blocked 31 shots in the 2012 tournament for the Jayhawks to break the single tournament blocks record previously held by Anthony Davis of Kentucky and Joakim Noah of Florida.
Williams has also been Duke’s second leading scorer in the tournament, with 15.3 points per night, and their leading rebounder, with 8 a game. Jaylin Williams is one of the most unique big men in the country, and Williams won’t be able to camp out in the post as he has for the first 3 games of the NCAA Tournament. But the Duke big man can play — and he poses a different kind of challenge than Chet Holmgren or Drew Timme did to Arkansas.
Duke only plays a 7-man rotation
Yes, Duke has elite talent, but if you’ve followed Mike Krzyzewski’s career, you know he’s famous for shortening his bench in March. The Blue Devils have used a 7-man rotation in the NCAA Tournament, and when an 8th player has featured, it has been only for a minute or two, as was the case with Bates Jones against Texas Tech. Arkansas is a deeper team, and the Razorbacks’ energy and ball pressure defense should wear on Duke Saturday.
Only one player in Duke’s rotation is a senior
That would be Marquette transfer Theo John, who is an outstanding shot blocker and provides Duke a capable deputy for Mark Williams. John is limited offensively, but the super senior gives Duke a sturdy defensive presence and Krzyzewski values his leadership immensely. Contrast Duke’s one senior with the 5 that regularly feature for Arkansas, and you get an idea of the competing brands of roster construction doing battle Saturday night.
Duke is the best team left in the field at defending without fouling
Yes, it’s appropriate to make a joke about referees and Mike Krzyzewski here. But whether it is good coaching or some type of advantage Duke gets from working referees, the Blue Devils rank 2nd nationally (and No. 1 among remaining teams in the field) at defending without fouling. Whether that holds Saturday is huge, as Arkansas has been one of the nation’s best teams all season at getting to the free throw line, with three players on their team in the top 300 nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (Notae, Williams, and Chris Lykes).