Matchup: 5 Duke Blue Devils vs. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Date and time: Thursday, 3/10, 2:00pm EST (probably closer to 2:30)
Location: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
How did they get here?
Duke advanced to the quarterfinals with a nail-biting victory yesterday over NC State. The two teams combined for 103 first half points, and the Blue Devils actually turned in their highest scoring game of their conference season.
The game-winner was converted by Marshall Plumlee, he of the freshly broken nose, on a put-back after an offensive rebound on which he was also fouled. His free throw with about a minute left was the last point of the game. That last minute was an ugly one, complete with turnovers, bad possessions, and other brain freezes on both sides.
Still, the heavily-favored Duke emerged from the wreckage victorious, with less than 24 hours until they were to tip off against Notre Dame. The Irish are here in the quarterfinals by virtue of their fourth-seed double-bye, a spot they earned with their tiebreaker win at Duke earlier in the season after the two teams finished conference regular season with equal 11-7 records.
G Matt Jones
G Grayson Allen
G Luke Kennard
F Brandon Ingram
C Marshall Plumlee
G Derryck Thornton
F Chase Jeter
One point is obvious right away: Duke has a very, very thin bench. Only Thornton plays substantial minutes, with Jeter more of a "break glass in case of emergency" type option off the bench. Notre Dame typically does as well (and, in fact, had great success in last year's tournament with a similarly short bench), but Mike Brey, always the wild card, showed a willingness to open up his bench in the regular season finale as he urged his team to push the tempo.
Marshall Plumlee is pretty much the anti-Zach Auguste. He is a monster and a very stiff athlete, but he does not quit and absolutely relishes his role as a high-effort, attack-the-boards, muscle-up-opposing-centers type player. This presents a lot of opportunity for Auguste on the offensive end, as forcing Plumlee to keep up with the Irish's deadly pick-and-roll attack seems like it should be a win for Notre Dame. Still, Plumlee is a load to keep off the glass and is no slouch with his back to the basket, either. Big time game-within-the-game between those two.
Brandon Ingram is a tough one for Notre Dame (or anyone) to defend. Asking Bonzie Colson to run him off the three-point line is asking for trouble. Expecting Matt Ryan to keep up with him might be as well. V.J. Beachem has failed to step up defending opposing wing players plenty of times already this season. If he stays out of foul trouble this time, how do the Irish keep Ingram from going off for 30? All that said, Colson has been in a rut for a while for Notre Dame, so getting Ingram to defend him (not to mention the bright lights of the ACC Tournament) may be exactly what Bonzie needs to get rolling again.
And then there is all-ACC first-teamer Grayson Allen, who will probably draw a combination of Steve Vasturia and Rex Pflueger. Both players need to make Allen, who is not a great defender by any stretch, work defensively. They also have to stay out of foul trouble but also keep Allen in front of them AND close out when he has a look for three (he's 42% on the season). It's a tall order, but at least the Irish have two options there.
Jones is less of an offensive focal point for Duke, and he will probably draw Demetrius Jackson defensively, which is probably best for Notre Dame, as Jackson isn't exactly the best perimeter defender the Irish have to throw at them. Kennard has secretly struggled from three this season but doesn't stop trying and is prone to have a hot hand every so often. Keeping Kennard at bay (and out of the paint, where he is secretly quite savvy), somewhere around his low-to-mid teens season average in scoring could be a huge bonus to put all the pressure on Allen and Ingram to win this one.
Keys to the game
Fatigue vs. rust - The Blue Devils played an intense game Wednesday afternoon, one in which both teams were getting up and down the court in a hurry throughout most of the first half. Duke already has a very short bench, and their starters have logged a ton of minutes on the season. Now, they enter today's game with Ingram having played the entire game yesterday, Allen with 39 minutes, Kennard with 35, and Plumlee with 32 and a broken nose.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame has been off since last Saturday. The last time they had a "bye" week, the Irish turned in a lackluster offensive performance at Georgia Tech, one that seemed to take them a couple of weeks to shake off until NC State came to South Bend this past Saturday. So which will be a bigger factor? Neither? Both? Interestingly, both teams are coming off two of their best offensive performances of the season against NC State, so maybe they will both be locked in and show no signs of trouble.
Tempo - Duke doesn't seem to shy away from opponents that want to run, and Notre Dame showed a willingness in their last game to do just that. In fact, Irish head coach Mike Brey has turned the shot clocks down to 20 seconds in practice and has said openly that they will get out and run. It probably suits guys like Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste, but we really only have a one-game sample, and that one game featured some unusually good outside shooting from the freshmen.
Does fast turn into sloppy and the Irish dig themselves a hole? Does Brey shorten the bench with the stakes so high, putting a lot of pressure on his main guys? Does Duke counter with a slower pace, or maybe they get out and run as well and wear themselves out in the closing minutes?
It seems like the Irish are really going for it, but the faster tempo is such a wild card that it is impossible to figure out how it will impact this game.
Foul trouble - Notre Dame was able to exploit this back in January, when Bonzie Colson continually went at Ingram and got the super-frosh in foul trouble early in the second half. When Ingram went out, Notre Dame really controlled the run of play for most of the remainder of the game.
In reality, Duke can ill-afford to have any of their main guys (Allen, Ingram, Plumlee) sit out for an extended period of time, because they really do not have any other viable options. We saw the same thing for them against Louisville, when Allen's foul trouble (and eventual ejection) completely changed the tide of that game, and Duke fell apart down the stretch.
Can the Irish exploit this? Will Zach Auguste be able to stay out of trouble while also keeping Plumlee from winning the rebounding battle? Does Rex Pflueger, designated defensive stopper, pick up a couple quick fouls, leaving Notre Dame without enough perimeter defenders to keep Duke from lighting them up? I think the refs hold a lot of power in this one.
This has the potential to be a great entry into what is increasingly becoming a great ACC rivalry. Notre Dame obviously holds the 4-1 advantage since joining the conference, but that has to regress to the mean at some point.
I think there are secretly very high stakes in this one. Whoever drops this one will have a lot of pressure on them in the NCAA Tournament to salvage a real postseason accomplishment from this season. Whoever wins will likely be playing with house money against a program that does not seem to care all that much about this tournament with the chance to move on to the finals.
The Irish had a one-year peak amid a series of postseasons that have left a lot to be desired. Can they establish some more consistent success in March? Without this one, the pressure will be high next week to get to the second weekend with likely a less-than-ideal 7 or 8 seed.
And Duke is Duke. Pressure and expectations are always sky-high in March. Plus, I am sure they feel like they owe Notre Dame at this point. There is lot of weight on very few guys' shoulders right now, so how do they respond?
This is a very real test for both sides, not just given the opponent, but mentally as well to establish the tone for this postseason. Should be a fascinating afternoon in D.C.