After starting off the 2013-14 campaign with a 3-1 start, the Alabama Crimson Tide will head to New York, NY to play on the biggest stage in basketball: Madison Square Garden. Waiting to meet them on the other side will be the #6 Duke Blue Devils (5-1), led by one of the greatest coaches of all-time, Mike Krzyzewski. Needless to say, this is a HUGE game for our beloved Crimson Tide. A victory in this game immediately makes Alabama a player in the national media's mind, and it wouldn't exactly hurt to have a Blue Devil head mounted on our wall when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee comes to examine our home in March. Anthony Grant's squad has shown some serious improvement in the first four games of the young season, but this is a totally different challenge.
Duke is one of the best offensive teams in the country this year, averaging 92.7 PPG, good for 6th best in the country. The Blue Devils feature arguably the best two person tandem in the NCAA with a pair of 6'8 forwards: true Freshman phenom Jabari Parker (23 PPG on 58% shooting, 8.8 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.3 SPG, and 1.8 BPG) and Sophomore Rodney Hood (21.8 PPG on 66.7%(!) shooting, 5.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, and 0.5 BPG). There is no other way to say this: these guys are fantastic. Both will be lottery picks in next summer's NBA Draft, and Parker may even go #1 in a class that is loaded with talent. Parker and Hood shoot a combined 53.9% from the 3 point line, and they both have a commanding presence with the basketball in their hands. If Alabama is to have any chance in this game, the Tide has to be able to contain these guys a little bit. Grant may want to try and target slowing Parker first, since he is still but a true freshman, despite how incredibly gifted he is.
While Hood and Parker are the studs to watch out for, Duke still has a roster loaded with other very good players. In the backcourt, Junior PG Quinn Cook (12.8 PPG, 7.2 APG, and 2.3 RPG) is currently tops in the ACC with a 5.4:1 assist to turnover ratio. He handles the ball extremely well, does a great job of setting his teammates up for open looks, and rarely turns the ball over. Sophomore SG Rasheed Sulaimon (8 PPG and 3.2 RPG) starts at the 2-guard, and he provides great length and athleticism to complement Hood and Parker. Senior G Andre Dawkins (9.6 PPG) provides a great scoring option off the bench despite only averaging 14 minutes per game. He can stretch the floor with his 3 point shooting ability (45.8%). The Blue Devils will also get plenty of minutes off of the bench from Senior Guards Josh Hairston (2.7 PPG and 1.7 RPG) and Tyler Thornton (2.5 PPG, 2 RPG and 2.2 APG), who provide critical experience in role positions.
In the frontcourt, I have already discussed Hood and Parker, who dominate the minutes at the forward positions. Duke will utilize plenty of smaller looks where Hood and Parker will be playing the 4 and 5 positions, respectively. But the starting 5 is 6'9 Sophomore Amilie Jefferson (7.7 PPG on 79.2% shooting and 4 RPG), who is an efficient scorer and, like Sulaimon, takes what he can get in complementing Hood and Parker. Freshman Semi Ojeleye (3 PPG and 1.6 RPG) also sees a few minutes a game, and his role should continue to expand as he becomes more acquainted with the system.
Obviously, Duke is an extremely talented basketball team. They are incredibly good on offense, and they may be the best team we will play all season long. The only team that even comes close talent-wise on our schedule is Kentucky, though if we can pull off the upset Wednesday night, Arizona can also claim to match Duke's raw talent. With that being said, Duke has looked vulnerable on the defensive side this season. In their last two games, ECU (5-1) and Vermont (1-5) have scored 74 and 90 points, respectively, both at Duke. So while Duke is an incredibly good team, they have shown recently that they are still human. The Vermont game Sunday night was especially surprising, as a Catamounts team that has struggled mightily all year almost pulled off the upset, falling 91-90 in the waning seconds. Whether that means Grant has been given the blueprint, or simply that it was a wake up call for Coach K's group, remains to be seen.
However, I can't stress enough that Duke's defense has been really bad this year. According to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted rankings, Duke currently stands at 176th in the country on defense. There are 345 teams in Division I basketball. As I mentioned above Vermont was able to score 90 points on this team at Cameron Indoor. The Catamounts did that on only 65 possessions. That's an alarming rate, especially when you consider that Vermont only averages 67.5 PPG this season, including the Duke game. That's 288th in the country.
I said a few days ago that I thought Alabama had about a 10% chance of pulling off the upset at Madison Square Garden. After watching the second half of the Duke-Vermont game, I would probably raise those chances to about 20%. The Blue Devils are still one of the nation's best, despite that ugly win over Vermont. My biggest concern is whether or not Alabama will be able to keep pace with Duke's offense, but this year's team has actually scored at a very effective rate. Alabama currently sits at 12th in the country in Field Goal Percentage at 52.4%. This isn't last year's Crimson Tide. At least they haven't been so far. Duke is bad on defense, and Alabama is much improved on offense. The Tide defintiely has a chance. I think that if Alabama can disrupt the Blue Devils offense with their quickness and athleticism, take advantage of Duke's lack of rebounding, and continue to score at the same clip they have been, this is going to get really interesting.
What To Watch For
1. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. In case I haven't already stressed this enough, Parker and Hood are incredible basketball players. Parker, in particular, is going to have a long, illustrious career in the NBA. The guy just has that innate ability to create shots. Remember how Georgia State had the two man tandem of R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow? Well Parker and Hood are those guys times ten. Alabama was able to stifle Hunter and Harrow, but this is a whole different beast.
2. Retin's Improvement. Retin Obasohan has been a godsend for Alabama this year. The guy has totally elevated his play to a level that he had never shown before, and it's been crucial for Alabama. The thing is that Retin does it all. He scores, handles the ball well, uses his athleticism to block shots and grab rebounds, and uses his ridiculous quickness to create turnovers. Hopefully this isn't just a passing surge, but a trend that we continue to see out of Obasohan.
3. How Alabama Stacks Up. Regardless of the outcome of this game, we are going to find out really fast just how the Tide matches up with one of the best in the nation. From an offensive standpoint, Duke is second to none. They continue to score at an extremely high rate. Not only do they score quickly, but they are so efficient too. Bama's defense has been stellar under Anthony Grant, but with the exception of 2012 Kentucky, they haven't seen anything like this group.
Three Keys to Victory
1. Limit Parker and Hood. Parker and Hood are going to get their points, it's an inevitability. But if Alabama can find a way to disrupt them even a little bit, it will go a long way. Duke has other guys that can score, but they haven't proven that they can do so consistently. If Alabama can find a way to do what no one else has, which is make Parker play at least a little bit like a true freshman, things could get really interesting. What happens if Alabama finds a matchup that forces Parker to play out of his comfort? Hood gets a lot less open looks, and the rest of Duke's team has to step up and score effectively. If Alabama can disrupt the flow of Duke's offense a little bit, they may get frustrated and start pressing. I noticed while watching the ECU game that the Pirates were running a 2-3 zone, much like the one we run, pretty effectively. The Tide's quickness allows it to really stretch the floor with an aggressive 2-3 that can force bad shots.
2. Rodney Cooper and Nick Jacobs. Cooper and Jacobs will be vital to Alabama's chances of pulling off the upset. They are really the only two guys who have both the athleticism and size to match up with Parker and Hood in a man-to-man situation. While Grant utilizes the 2-3 zone much of the time, he also likes to switch it up and run man up with the opposing team as well. Cooper and Jacobs will more than likely be the guys responsible for Duke's terrific tandem. They also will need to get a body on Parker and Hood (who lead Duke in rebounds as well) to block out and get rebounds. Which leads me to....
3. SOMEBODY REBOUND. If Duke has any weakness at all (besides what has been really bad defense), it's that they don't rebound well. The Blue Devils are ranked 282nd in the country in RPG. I know that they make a lot of their shots, but that still doesn't excuse them only being able to out-rebound Vermont by a count of 30-24. Vermont doesn't rebound at all. They have no interest in it. The Catamounts are 319th in RPG. Alabama has to rebound well in this game. Jimmie Taylor and Carl Engstrom need to make a difference on the boards. As I stated above, Jacobs and Cooper have to find Hood and Parker as soon as the shot goes up, and our team needs to crash the boards in this one. Duke is too good to give them second chances on offense.
Alabama has an incredible opportunity to pull off the biggest win it's had in a very long time. A win Wednesday night over a top ten Duke team would catapult Alabama's campaign to return to the NCAA Tournament, and it would also give the Tide an opportunity to play against (potentially) another top ten team on Friday night against Arizona. The game will tip off at 8:30 CST and will be televised by ESPN2.