LAS VEGAS – The college basketball season isn’t three weeks old and Gonzaga is bracing for its third top-five matchup.
The top-ranked Zags tangle with No. 5 Duke on Friday at T-Mobile Arena, three days after Gonzaga clobbered No. 2 UCLA 83-63 at the same venue and 13 days after handling then-No. 5 Texas 86-74 in Spokane.
The Blue Devils, who were No. 9 in the Associated Press preseason poll, opened the season with a 79-71 win over No. 10 Kentucky at Madison Square Garden in their lone matchup versus a ranked foe.
We connected with Duke beat writer Steve Wiseman for insight on the team’s strengths and weaknesses, star freshman Paolo Banchero and key factors in Friday’s showdown. Wiseman has covered Duke athletics for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer since 2010.
S-R: What stands out as Duke’s biggest strengths and possible concern spots in the Blue Devils’ 6-0 start?
SW: This team is really good defensively, something that was once a constant for Duke but that had dropped off in the last two seasons. This is both on-ball and help defense with shot blockers inside. So far, the Blue Devils take care of the ball (turnover percentage of 12.7% is No. 7 nationally per KenPom). They have four, and sometimes five, ballhandlers on the court so that helps. As for a concern, the 3-point shooting hasn’t been consistent. At times, it’s been poor. But, even while going 1 of 12 against Kentucky, Duke won that game.
S-R: How would you describe freshman Paolo Banchero’s game and what makes him so hard to stop?
SW: Banchero has several NBA-level moves, like his step-back jump shot from either mid-range or behind the 3-point line. He’s already shown improvement handling the ball, particularly in traffic. Turnovers marked his play in the first couple of games but he’s making better decisions now. On defense, he can guard at all five positions. That allows Duke to put him at the 5 to use a smaller lineup against quicker teams or have him guard on the perimeter with 7-foot sophomore Mark Williams in the middle.
S-R: Mike Krzyzewski is retiring at the end of the season and assistant Jon Scheyer will take over as head coach. Does Duke have the roster to send Coach K out with his sixth national championship?
SW: This group’s athleticism is striking along with its size – that’s height as well as sturdiness. Those things make this team far better than last year’s 13-11 team and clearly able to challenge for a Final Four berth. Freshmen Trevor Keels and Banchero arrived on campus already built like grown men. With two big men (Williams and Theo John) to rotate in and out with little drop-off in play, Duke is formidable in the post. It comes down to perimeter shooting when Duke plays the better teams it will face.
S-R: What are the biggest keys for Duke in Friday’s matchup against Gonzaga?
SW: Duke has to figure out how it will defend Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme. Both those players are matchup nightmares. Duke has options with Banchero, Williams and John. Transition defense will be important to prevent run-outs and easy baskets. This goes for both teams. The Blue Devils would much rather guard Gonzaga in the half court with their size and athleticism. The last is the aforementioned 3-point shooting. Keels, Wendell Moore, Roach and Banchero have shown the ability to hit open 3s. They really need to do that Friday night. I’m not talking at a 50% clip or anything ridiculous but just enough to give Williams and John room to maneuver inside.
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