Few teams in college basketball are equipped to stand toe-to-toe with Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils, but they meet one such opponent in Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup in Houston.
Larry Krystkowiak — Utah’s Coach K — has had the Utes playing like a Top 10 team at times this season. They hit a rough patch just before the tournament, losing 3-of-5: at Oregon Feb. 22; vs. Arizona Feb. 28; and a confounding stumble at Washington March 7.
A second loss to Oregon in the semifinals of this month’s Pac-12 Tournament sent Utah limping into the Big Dance. Hardly seems like the case for a team capable of beating a No. 1 seed, and especially not a No. 1 seed that has generated buzz as a possible Kentucky-slayer.
Perhaps because of its slide, Utah was an easy team to overlook when it was slotted as the No. 5 seed in Duke’s South Regional bracket. The Utes were on the wrong end of a trendy upset pick against Round of 64 opponent Stephen F. Austin.
It’s understandable, really. Stephen F. Austin was a winner of 27-of-28 heading into the matchup and last year accomplished something no Utah team had since 2005: win an NCAA Tournament game.
But after handling both the Lumberjacks, Utah beat Georgetown in a contest indicative of the Utes’ March: A slow start with a torrid finish.
Krystkowiak has Utah back to playing like the team that beat Wichita State, took Kansas to the brink in a virtual road game and contended with Arizona for the Pac-12 regular-season crown.
That Utah team plays with consistent defensive intensity and an effective, inside-outside approach on offense similar to Duke.
The similar philosophies of Coach K(rzyzewski) and Coach K(rystkowiak) set the foundation for an interesting clash of similar styles, as well as nightmare matchup scenarios for the top-seeded Blue Devils.
Take Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor, arguably the best pure big man in college basketball. Okafor plays a traditional low-post game largely absent from today’s game — at least, absent from a player as skilled as Okafor.
Okafor’s style is reminiscent of future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan in his younger days, alternating between ferocious power moves and nimble footwork to beat defenders down low.
Utah will counter with Jakob Poeltl, a competent on-ball post defender. However, the more important piece to the Utes “defending” Okafor is back-up Dallin Bachynski.
Bachynski’s presence off the bench makes Utah one of the rare teams capable of cycling through 7-footers on Okafor. More importantly — and this is where the Tim Duncan comparison factors in — Bachynski gives Krystkowiak the option to foul Okafor five extra times.
— J.B. Long (@JB_Long) March 24, 2015
In 1997, Stanford — coached by Krystkowiak’s former Montana mentor Mike Montgomery — upset Wake Forest by repeatedly fouling Duncan. Cardinal big men Mark Madsen, Tim Young and Pete Van Elswyk combined for 12 personal fouls, and Duncan shot 11 free throws.
A similar strategy employed against Okafor would put a heavy burden on the talented freshman’s wholly unimpressive 51.6 percent free-throw average.
Indeed, the blueprint to beating the Blue Devils on the defensive end is grinding them down. However, the opposite is true when Utah has possession. The constant in each of Duke’s four losses this season is the Blue Devils surrendered at least 74 points.
No one is going to accuse Utah’s Coach K of borrowing from Paul Westhead’s playbook and turning Friday’s game into a redux of 1990 UNLV-Loyola Marymount. Still, Utah ranks No. 18 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com. That’s nine ahead of NC State, and tied with fellow Pac-12 member Oregon, a team more traditionally equated with employing an uptempo style.
Notre Dame, NC State and Miami all relied on hot-shooting perimeter players to buoy their offense: Trevor Lacey hit the Blue Devils for five 3-pointers en route to 21 points; Angel Rodriguez connected on four from deep and finished with 24 points; and Jerian Grant poured in 36 in two defeats of Duke.
Utah’s 14.7-point per game scorer Delon Wright can similarly heat up. He’s sputtered in the Utes’ two NCAA Tournament games, shooting just 4-of-14 without a 3-pointer. But heading into the Big Dance, Wright ripped off four straight games shooting between 55 and 67 percent from the floor.
The wins over Stephen F. Austin and Georgetown are Wright’s only back-to-back games shooting below 40 percent in consecutive outings this season, so he’s primed to break out.
Utah’s X-factor Friday, however, might be Wright’s running mate, Jordan Loveridge. Loveridge has been on fire from deep in recent weeks, connecting on multiple 3-pointers in six of the Utes’ last seven games; including two each against SFA and Georgetown.
Loveridge should draw Duke’s top perimeter defender, Justise Winslow. Loveridge can then serve as decoy to isolate Wright, but remain a threat from deep if Winslow’s presence is indeed to stop penetration.