Houston, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The South Region's final matchup of the Sweet 16 will feature the fifth-seeded Utah Utes and top-seeded Duke Blue Devils battling it out at Houston's NRG Stadium on Friday.
The winner advances to the Elite Eight of the tournament and will take on either Gonzaga or UCLA in the South Region finals.
Utah was able to escape Stephen F. Austin in the second round of the tournament (57-50) and then defeat Georgetown in the third round (75-64) without much issue to earn its spot in the Sweet 16. The Utes, who are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, are making their first trip to the Sweet 16 in 10 years.
Duke dropped a heartbreaking ACC Tournament championship loss to Notre Dame earlier this month, but rebounded nicely against Robert Morris (85-56) and San Diego State (68-49) to earn its spot in the Sweet 16. The Blue Devils became the first program in history to win its 100th tournament game when they defeated Robert Morris last week in the second round.
Duke and Utah have met three times on the basketball court in history, with the Blue Devils owning two of those three decisions. Utah had the last laugh though, with a 78-75 overtime victory during the 1970 campaign.
Utah couldn't be stopped offensively against Georgetown the last time out. Five players scored in double figures to aid in the win, chief among them was Brandon Taylor and his 14 points. Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl each chipped in with 12 points, while Wright added five assists, Dakarai Tucker added 11 points, while Jordan Loveridge contributed 10 for Utah, which shot an impressive 57.9 percent from the floor. The Utes boosted their offensive resume with an 8-of-14 mark from 3-point distance and 23-of-32 at the charity stripe.
Wright has really helped himself as he works toward a professional career, but the first thing on his mind is a championship with the Utes. He leads the team in scoring at 14.7 ppg, adding in 176 assists and 70 steals to his inflated stat line. He also connects on 83.4 percent of his free-throw attempts and 51.8 percent of his shots from the field. Taylor (10.5 ppg) and Loveridge (10.2 ppg) also contribute double-digit scoring averages for Utah, which is netting 71.7 ppg this season. Still, for the Utes, defense has been at a constant. Utah is allowing opponents to score a mere 56.9 ppg on 38.3 percent shooting from the field, which will be key against an offensive juggernaut like Duke.
Speaking of which, the Blue Devils were in action against another defense- first program in San Diego State over the weekend. Duke shrugged aside the Aztecs and their defensive prowess with an impressive defensive showing of its own. The Blue Devils held the Aztecs to 32.8 percent shooting in the contest, including 2-of-13 from 3-point range. Meanwhile ACC Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor (the first freshman to ever win the distinction) was on point underneath the basket, netting a team-high 26 points on 12-of-16 shooting. Quinn Cook chipped in 15 points, and Justise Winslow tallied a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds, adding in five assists and four steals.
There isn't much Okafor can't do, as the 6-foot-11 freshman led the ACC in scoring during the regular season, and now enters the Sweet 16 averaging 18.1 ppg on 67.7 percent shooting. His 8.7 rpg is the best on the Blue Devils as well, along with 49 blocked shots. Cook (15.8 ppg), Winslow (12.1 ppg) and Tyus Jones (11.4 ppg, 5.8 apg) round out the Duke double-digit scorers this season entering this Sweet 16 matchup. The Blue Devils are netting 80.4 ppg on 50.7 percent shooting, so this could be Utah's toughest opponent to slow down to date. Defensively, Duke is allowing only 64.8 ppg to opponents on 42.4 percent shooting.