Can Duke live up to the preseason hype?
The Blue Devils instantly became a popular pick to win another national championship after bringing in a highly-touted freshman class brimming with future NBA talent. Injuries to key players and some unexpected struggles during the regular season dimmed that optimistic outlook a bit. Now that Duke is fresh off winning an ACC Tournament title, the bandwagon is filling up with believers again.
Containing Duke's offense is no easy task. The Blue Devils have five players who average 10 or more points per game this season, led by sophomore guard Luke Kennard (20.1 ppg). Duke also features Jayson Tatum, a future NBA lottery pick who is a threat both inside and outside. Tatum is the team's No. 2 scorer (16.9 ppg) and rebounder (7.3 rpg).
Matching up with the second-seeded Blue Devils (27-8) will be no easy task for Troy. The Trojans (22-14) claimed the Sun Belt Tournament title to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. Troy has won six straight games and 10 of its last 12. The Trojans took USC to the wire before losing 82-77 in their only other game against a team in the current field of 68.
This is the first-ever meeting between the two schools.
East Region: No. 15 Troy Trojans (22-14) vs. No. 2 Duke Blue Devils (27-8)
When: 7:20 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Bon Secours Wellness Arena (Greenville, S.C.)
Line: Duke -19
Keys for Troy
Containing Duke's perimeter threats is obviously a concern. A bigger key for the Trojans could be their ability to be productive and efficient on offense. Troy will need to shoot a high percentage since the Blue Devils hold a distinct size advantage around the basket.
Troy is certainly capable of making it rain. The Trojans shoot 45.7 percent from the field and 36.2 percent from the perimeter. They average 8.5 made 3-pointers per contest. Getting hot from outside will help them counteract advantages Duke has inside.
Troy needs to be patient on offense and find ways to open things up for Jordon Varnado. The sophomore forward leads the Trojans in scoring (16.5 ppg) and rebounding (7.1 rpg). When Varnado is productive, the team flourishes. He has averaged 18.0 points and 6.5 rebounds during Troy's recent six-game winning streak.
Keys for Duke
Lighting it up from the perimeter early is critical for the Blue Devils. Duke got cooking from 3-point range during the first half against UNC Wilmington in its NCAA Tournament opener last season. It helped the Blue Devils survive a second-half rally by the Seahawks.
Kennard, Tatum, Grayson Allen and Frank Jackson can all be lethal from outside at times. Their shooting abilities stretch defenses and force them away from the basket. All four players shoot 33 percent or better from the perimeter – led by Kennard, who makes 3-pointers at a 44.3 percent clip. Hot outside shooting will open up space for Tatum to attack the rim and get easy points.
Opportunities to burn Troy from long distance will be there. The Trojans allow opponents to shoot 33.6 percent from 3-point range and give up 7.8 made 3-pointers per game.
Duke seems to struggle in first round games when it isn't a No. 1 seed. The Blue Devils have suffered three first-round exits in the last 10 years and are just 4-3 in that span when seeded second or lower. Troy has good odds for giving Duke unexpected problems. Still, it isn't likely that the Trojans will become the next Mercer and stun the Blue Devils. Duke is too strong on the perimeter for Troy to handle and will be able to pull away late.
Prediction: Duke 81, Troy 71
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo by Duke Athletics, courtesy of www.goduke.com)