Despite a very hostile environment and two extremely motivated opponents, Duke managed to survive and advance even without brining their ‘A' game on the offensive end. While many will point out that neither Delaware State nor Mississippi State were on anyone's National Title watch, both teams proved to be better than their seeding.
The Bulldogs, were finally healthy and played like their preseason ranking of a top 15 program. Meanwhile the Hornets showed why they led top ranked Illinois for longer than any other team this season. Add in a decicedly anti-Duke gathering in Charlotte and you've got the recipe for disaster. And yet, as has been their custom all year long, this bunch of Blue Devils didn't blink on their way to two gritty victories.
The driving force behind Duke's two early wins wasn't lights out shooting, or averaging shooting performances. Instead it was the Blue Devils' ability to play shut down defense and crash the boards – something that hasn't been a strength of this team a times this year. In the two games in Charlotte, Duke out-rebounded their opponents 75-62 including a 43-39 victory on the boards against Mississippi State, the nation's fourth best rebounding team.
Meanwhile Duke was able to hold the Hornets and Bulldogs to a combined 34% shooting from the floor (39-of-114) and 32% (9-of-28) from the perimeter.
Individually Duke got a lift from senior Daniel Ewing, who had been M.I.A. for various stretches this season. In Charlotte, Ewing averaged 17 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals while playing 79 of a possible 80 minutes. Ewing also shot the ball well, hitting 50% of his field goal attempts, 55% of his perimeter shots, and all eight of his free throws.
In the paint Duke got its usual superb play out of Shelden Williams who averaged 13.5 points, 13 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks while playing an average of 33 minutes per night. However, the continued improvement of Shavlik Randolph was lost in Duke's success. While the Raleigh native didn't wow many with his stat lines, his help defense and aggressive play kept the Blue Devils alive. One heartening aspect of his weekend was the new found ability to stay on the floor despite the usual foul problems, although many (including notorious Duke detractor Billy Packer) were questioning some of the whistles aimed at Randolph.
What Went Wrong:
As the young lady at Overstock.com will tell you, "it's all about the O". Unfortunately Duke was unable to find their offensive game in the 80 minutes in the Queen City. After showing the ability to comfortably score in the low 80s for much of the season, Duke struggled to score 60 in both games, while shooting 39% from the floor, but just 34% from the perimeter.
Most notable was the performance of junior guard, and ACC Player of the Year J.J. Redick, who suffered through a pair of tough games. Redick scored a combined 23 points in the two games after averaging 22 points per game on the season. His jumpshots were routinely off, as he connected on just 25% (6-of-24) of his total field goals and just 20% (3-of-15) from behind the arc. With their leader struggling, Duke seemed unsure as to how to go about getting points for long stretches at a time – something that could come back to haunt them in the coming weeks.
Player of the Game:
Duke wouldn't have advanced out of the first weekend without a number of players. However the star of stars in Charlotte was Shelden Williams. The big man continued to anchor the post for Duke on both ends of the floor, and though his free throw shooting is tapering off a bit down the stretch, Williams has proven to be invaluable for the Blue Devils.
Duke heads to Austin for the regional semifinal match up against Michigan State. The Spartans began the year ranked among the nation's top five teams and have found their stride down the stretch of the season. Boasting a 24-6 record, MSU certainly remembers the 85-77 defeat dealt to them in Cameron at the start of the season. In that game Redick and Ewing combined for 58 points while Duke was unconscious from behind the arc. With an All-American caliber big man in the middle, Duke will need another big contribution from Williams while the guards will have work to defend on the perimeter where the Spartans are incredibly athletic.