On the heels of their latest Maui Invitational title, the Duke Blue Devils will aim to secure the No. 2 national ranking and make a case for No. 1 when they take on the Ohio State Buckeyes Tuesday night.
This early in the season it’s difficult to sell any game as a must-win, obviously. Regardless of what ends up happening when these two powerhouses lock horns, there will be plenty of games to make up for it. But that doesn’t the change the fact that there is an undeniable air of importance surrounding this showdown, and it’s equally noteworthy that both Mike Krzyzewski and Thad Matta are looking to make a statement against one another.
Whereas Ohio State’s lone victory over a ranked opponent this season came in the form of a mid-November win versus the then-No. 7 ranked Florida Gators, Duke has faced off against and, ultimately, beaten some pretty impressive competition in the early going. Just last week Krzyzewski’s bunch secured their latest Maui Invitational title by taking down the tough-as-nails Kansas Jayhawks in the championship game. That win, coupled with similarly impressive showings against the Michigan Wolverines and Tennessee Vols answered any questions that may have been circulating regarding whether their team would look as good on the court as it did on paper.
As expected, it has been a roller coaster ride with freshman phenom Austin Rivers who has undeniably become of the most polarizing young college stars of the year. In his last game against Kansas, Rivers showcased the bad that has at times been associated with him – gunning it and stagnating the offense rather than following Krzyzewski’s spread-it-around gameplan. Of course, Rivers also brings a lot of good to the table. He’s clearly the only player on the roster who can create his own shot with ease, and his ability to initiate contact around the basket and make space in tight situations is a major asset to Duke’s offense. The attention-magnet freshman is second on the team in scoring, putting up a solid 14.4 points per game.
Duke also boasts one of the most deep guard rotations in the nation this year, and that was particularly evident when Krzyzewski opted to pull Rivers late versus Kansas in favor of Tyler Thornton – who absolutely lit the Jayhawks up.
On the year, Duke is putting up 79 points per game at nearly a 50 percent clip. The big question facing the team, though, is how consistent their playmakers can be. Rivers’ streakiness had been pointed out ad nauseam, but the squad’s bigs in Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are just as big of question marks. Scoring leader Seth Curry is a lights-out shooter, but as is the case with players of his ilk, you have to wonder what happens when he faces an inevitable dry spell. Given that 28 of his 62 shots attempted this season have come from behind the three point line, his production is anything but guaranteed.
The problem with comparing Ohio State and Duke’s numbers is the relatively weak teams that the former squad has faced to date. Yes, they have outrebounded all opponents besides Florida, but none of their bigs have been challenged to this point. And while Duke hasn’t been especially impressive on the boards to date either, it’s not fair to compare them until we see what happens Tuesday night. The same goes for Ohio State’s scoring, which is six points higher on the year than Duke’s (85 to 79 points per game) but comes with the same asterisk as rebounds.
From beyond the arc, the Buckeyes are even more streaky than Duke.
Where Ohio state will have success against Duke, however, is with their very talented star tandem of Jared Sullinger and William Buford. As of this point, Sullinger is averaging nearly 19 points and 11 rebounds per game, and has racked up three straight double-doubles. His ability to create something out of relatively little will pay dividends against a pair like Kelly and Plumlee. Buford, for his part, is averaging almost 18 points per game and is shooting a picture perfect 50 percent from beyond the arc. His shooting progression from a horrific early season start could either mean that he’s going to keep on getting better, or that it’s a complete fluke. More games will prove which option it is.
The biggest question the Buckeyes will need to answer Tuesday night is whether or not they can slow down the guard depth Duke boasts, and whether Sullinger can do some damage in the paint against an unproven set of defenders.
Without a doubt, this is the biggest early season match-up of the year, and the ramifications of it will be felt nationally.
The game tips off at 9:30 p.m. eastern time, Tuesday.