The final game to reach the Final Four might just be the best matchup so far this tournament. Duke and Louisville bring pro-caliber talent, veteran tourney-proven players and Hall of Fame Coaches (I know, Pitino hasn’t gotten in yet, but he’s a HOF’er). It will be easily the highest rated game of the tourney TV wise, but will it be as compelling a game on the court as the glamor of the matchup foreshadows?
Let’s dig inside this matchup and get the winning edge for tonight’s regional semifinal.
#2 Duke Blue Devils vs. #1 Louisville Cardinals -3.5 (Midwest Regional Final)
In the last round, I was very cautious about jumping on the “Duke is too soft” bandwagon that had most pundits picking Michigan State. To me, the tipping point in that matchup wasn’t just the “toughness” factor, because there is little denying that Duke has had trouble with teams with physical bigs who pushed Plumlee off the block, but rather the rest of the equation when it comes to assessing Duke. Keep in mind most of those games they lost were without Brian Kelly to balance the floor and were with a limping and injured Seth Curry. Curry is healthy (at least healthier) now, and he absolutely torched Michigan State. Kelly is enough of on offensive threat to keep teams from doubling on Plumlee and the rest of the shooters have done their job in the NCAA Tourney. Kelly is also a better defender than most give him credit form making Duke overall a good defensive team.
But today, they are playing a GREAT defensive team. By KenPom metrics and several other defensive efficiency measures, Louisville isn’t just “good”, they are historically great on the defensive side of the ball. The question for Louisville has always been offensively. Can they score enough points and make enough big baskets to win a title?
So far, that answer has been a resounding yes. Russ Smith has been electric, and is scoring a ton of points, but most importantly, he has scored a ton of points EFFICIENTLY. That’s the key for Russ-diculous and frankly, the entire Cardinal offense.
They scored well against Oregon, and they played most of the game without Peyton Siva who got in very early foul trouble and played only 19 minutes. They have also gotten contributions from Blackshear and Behanen, which will be crucial today. And of course, they have perhaps the best defensive center in college basketball (in the conversation with Withey and Nerlens Noels) in Gorgi Dieng to anchor the paint. I expect him to give Plumlee FITS today. Keep in mind, Dieng was sidelined with an injury when Duke beat Louisville in the Bahamas back in November. This is a MUCH different Louisville team they’ll face tonight.
Overall, I like Louisville to win the game today. Duke beat Michigan State because, in my opinion, for all the talk about Michigan State’s size and toughness, Duke has better basketball players. There aren’t a lot of pros on that Michigan State roster. However, Louisville is a more talented team overall and their frenetic style of play could hurt a relatively thin Duke team. The big X-Factor to me is the ability of Louisville’s guard to harass shooters. There won’t be a lot of clean looks for Curry and Sulaimon tonight, and Chane Behanen, though giving up a little size, is a great defensive matchup for Brian Kelly. Add in Dieng driving Plumlee bananas, and it adds up to a big Louisville advantage.
Free Pick: Louisville Cardinals -3.5