I love college hoops. Always have. But I find the longer I write about the sport and the longer I wager on it the more objective and dispassionate I become. I still love the games and could watch a week if I had the time, but I find myself more and more distanced emotionally from any particular team or rooting interest. I watch for entertainment and I root for the team I backed to cover.
But I have to admit, I am super-amped up for tonight’s Duke vs. Notre Dame game. Not only is it a matchup of two top ten teams and two likely first team All Americans, but the game just FEELS big tonight. Notre Dame made an ambitious leap to the ACC conference and instead of growing pains, they are experiencing unexpected success. They are ranked 8th in the country and their only two losses are an early one-pointer at Providence and a competitive game to undefeated and top-ranked defensive efficiency team in the country Virginia.
And on the visiting bench you have the most polarizing team in college basketball, the Duke Blue Devils with their legendary coach fresh off recording his insane 1000th victory.
You can’t ask for much better television than what we are going to get tonight on ESPN2 at 7:30 EST, so rather than mess around with anything else on the slate tonight, let’s dive into one of the more intriguing matchups of the 2015 college basketball season.
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Today’s Free Pick:
Duke Blue Devils -1.5 at Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Both teams are really good. Let’s just get that out of the way early. Both teams have legit NBA talent and impressive shooters all over the floor. But as we start to differentiate these two squads, it’s worth noting that both teams have a strength that attacks their opponent’s weakness.
We’ve seen Duke be vulnerable to exactly the type of offensive attack the Irish are able to employ. They have a lightning quick, penetration-preferring backcourt with Jackson and Jerian Grant. This afford the Irish lots of spread-offense dribble-drive opportunities which was especially problematic for the Devils against Miami. If Duke can’t contain Jackson and Grant without help, they leave themselves vulnerable to a host of deadly shooters on the perimeter like the two aforementioned guards as well as Pat Connaughton and Vasturia.
Duke has the best offensive big man in the country in presumptive #1 draft pick Jahlil Okafor. Notre Dame essentially plays four guards surrounding Zach Auguste. Can Auguste guard Okafor with single coverage? I think he will have some foul trouble if he is forced to, which isa big problem for the Irish who lack solid interior depth. And just like the problem Duke faces if they are forced to help on dribble drives, or if Auguste can drage Okafor away from the hoop on high ball screens, if Notre Dame doubles down on Okafor (which they very well may have to) they leave themselves vulnerable to a host of shooters with lethal accuracy behind the arc.
Both teams strengths well-counter the other’s weaknesses.
So where does the winning edge come tonight? I am going to give the Irish a nod based on two non-statistical factors. First, this is probably the biggest home game for Notre Dame basketball in a decade. They are off to their best start since Digger Phelps’s third season in 1973 and they are hosting the standard for college basketball excellence in an attempt to validate their season’s success, their move to the ACC, and even get into conversation for a #1 seed. The Joyce Center will be absolutely electric.
The second factor is the slight letdown factor after the emotional comeback win and all the fanfare surrounding Duke’s trip to Madison Square Garden and Coach K’s 1000th win. Should that arbitrary milestone really affect the players? It shouldn’t. But it very well could. There has been so much pomp and circumstance around every Duke game leading up to the milestone and a ton of celebration by the media and sportsworld post-game. An emotional letdown for a young team seems like a perfectly plausible scenario heading on the road to face a poised, veteran team who has had this game circled for two weeks.
I like the Irish at home in what should be one of the more entertaining watches since Gonzaga v. Arizona and Kentucky v. Louisville.