The two top seeds in the Midwest have reached the regional final... just as we all expected, right?
Among all the madness that has busted brackets and kept Cinderella dancing, the Midwest has unfolded with two blue bloods of college basketball rising to the top. With a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio at stake, the No. 2 Duke (29-7, 13-5 ACC) takes on top-seeded Kansas (30-7, 13-5 Big 12) in the Elite Eight Sunday in Omaha.
Duke is making its 42nd NCAA Tournament appearance — tied for fifth-most all time — and will now take part in its 21st Elite Eight. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils haven’t played two games in the second weekend since 2015 when they won it all, losing in the Sweet 16 in ‘16 and in the Round of 32 last year.
Kansas, meanwhile, is in the tournament for the 47th time and the 29th consecutive season, the longest such run in NCAA history. This year’s Elite Eight appearance is Kansas’ third in as many seasons and 23rd all-time.
This will be the 12th meeting between these two teams. The Blue Devils hold a 7-4 edge, including a 5-4 advantage at neutral sites and 3-2 in the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks have won the last two meetings, an 11-point victory in 2013 and by two in ‘16.
Midwest Region: No. 2 Duke Blue Devils (29-7) vs. No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks (30-7)
Time: 5:05 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Where: CenturyLink Center Omaha (Omaha, NE)
Keys for Duke
Duke’s path to the Elite Eight did not start being terribly difficult, but the competition has certainly ramped up in the last two rounds. After coasting to a 22-point win against 15th-seeded Iona and a 25-point win over No. 7 Rhode Island, the 11th-seeded Syracuse Orange gave the Blue Devils everything they could handle on Friday night.
The Orange hung right with Duke the entire way, keeping the game close even as the Blue Devils never trailed in the second half. But several players chipped in for the Blue Devils, with Marvin Bagley III tallied a game-high 22 points, while Wendell Carter Jr. and Grayson Allen added 16 and 15, respectively.
Keys for Kansas
Kansas has faced a much tougher path to the Elite Eight. A very tough — and arguably under-seeded at No. 16 — Penn team posed a challenge in the first round before Kansas pulled away to win by 16 points. The Jayhawks were then in a battle against Seton Hall, which they eventually won by four.
Likewise, the Jayhawks took a sizable lead against Clemson in Sweet 16, who fought back to make it a four-point game but could not complete the comeback. Malik Newman was the leading scorer for Kansas with 16 points, and Udoka Azubuike scored 14 to go along with 11 rebounds for the sixth double-double of his career.
Against such a talented and strong offensive team, Kansas must rely on its man-to-man defense to limit Duke’s easy opportunities. The Blue Devils are third in the nation in assists and eighth in scoring offense, so they are more than accustomed to getting their share of points.
Kansas’s defense hasn’t been anything to write home about this season, giving up just under 71 points per game which is middle of the pack in both the Big 12 and the nation. That will have to improve if Kansas is to advance to San Antonio.
One of Kansas’ primary strengths is its ability to shoot 3-pointers consistently at a high level. The Jayhawks lead the Big 12 in both made threes and 3-point percentage, also ranking in the top-25 nationally in these categories.
Because of Duke’s offensive balance, Kansas will need to make plenty of shots to keep pace in what very well could end up being a track meet. If Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk can both get hot from distance and score in a hurry, the Jayhawks will be in a great position to get a second straight win against an ACC team in this tournament.
Just as some teams are criticized for not being able to win on the biggest stage, Bill Self has struggled in Elite Eight games, going just 2-7 in nine career trips (2-5 at Kansas). Sure, his Jayhawks have reached the national championship (winning once) in the two times that he has won in the Elite Eight, but his five losses are a blemish on an otherwise legendary portfolio.
Putting Self’s Elite Eight résumé aside, Duke is arguably playing the best basketball out of any team remaining in this tournament. The Blue Devils also feature two players who very well could get picked in the top 10 in this summer’s NBA draft. Add to that the veteran presence of Grayson Allen and the leadership of Coach K, and this Duke team has the tools to go all the way.
Prediction: Duke 81, Kansas 78
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo by Duke Athletics, courtesy of @DukeMBB)