Are There Any Western Challengers to Duke?
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by Jason Susee
The Duke Blue Devils are the best team in the country, we all know that. So far, they have washed out the teams in the East like a tsunami. But, will this blue wave be able to drown the teams west of the Rockies come Tourney time?
The Blue Devils have two of the top five players in the country in JJ Redick and Shelden Williams, and start two tough seniors in Sean Dockery and Lee Melchionni. Remember it was Dockery who hit the game-saving shot against VaTech on December 4th. Since that game, the Devils have dispatched all opponents since by an average of 21 points per game. Which brings us to the question:
Can any team in the West beat Duke? Here's a closer look at the contenders:
We’ll start in the Pac-10, where the talent is diluted at best. Arizona, a preseason AP top 10, opened up the 2006 campaign by losing 3 quick games in conference play, consequently dropping out of the Top 25. Lute Olsen has “dismissed the distraction” in Chris Rodgers, but by doing this, he dismissed not only a distraction, but his top 3-pt. shooter and third-leading scorer.
Bottom Line: The Wildcats do not have the 3-pt game or the ability to make clutch free throws to stand a chance against Duke.
Next we have UCLA, another top 25 team, currently ranked 16th. The Bruins are a team that most prognosticators are high on, but with the phrase “next year” leading most of the dialogue. Injuries have all but destroyed the Bruins' hopes at making a legitimate Title run, but this team will still be Dangerous in the NCAA's
Yes, this is the youngest team in the nation, but against a dynasty, this team might have just what it takes…no conscience! With a 4 or 5 seed, UCLA could potentially meet Duke in a sweet 16 match-up. Standout sophs Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo run the Bruin offense, but the only way the Bruins have a chance against Duke is going to be on the defensive end. Freshman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and 7’-0” senior Ryan Hollins would be primarily responsible for Williams in this potential match-up…. advantage still Williams.
Bottom Line: UCLA would need to get Williams in quick foul trouble, and have Redick to lose a finger in a vending machine accident to beat the Devils.
The last best hope for the Pac-10 is the Washington Huskies. The Huskies are a top ten team this year, but another #1 seed (as in 2005) is unlikely. The Dawgs should end up with a seed between 2 and 4 in March. Brandon Roy leads this high powered offense, which has already scored over 90 points in 8 games this season. What the Huskies lack is a front line to match the Blue Devils'. Coach Lorenzo Romar’s game plan if they meet the Devils would be…run and shoot…a lot!
Bottom Line: Washington has the offensive firepower, but not enough size to overpower the Devils in March.
So, if the Pac-10 is no match for Duke, what of the other conferences west of the Rockies?
The Mountain West Conference has three teams that stand a chance to get into the tourney: San Diego St., Air Force, and Wyoming. Look for 2 of the 3 to be playing in March…tops. The MWC record vs. top 25 teams this season is 0-3. The only way any of these teams even meet Duke is probably in the 1st round is as a 16 seed. We all know the stats in 1 vs. 16 seeds, so unless you award points for ski jumping, Duke blows away any team from the MWC.
The Western Athletic Conference is nearly as futile as the MWC. But, it does have a perennial NCAA darkhorse in Nevada. If another WAC team gets the conference's automatic bid, Nevada could get an at-large. But as for any WAC team beating Duke, I don’t think so.
The Big Sky Conference, not much to say….other than Montana picking up the conference selection as another 15 or 16 seed. A potential 1st round upset of Duke? (See Mountain West Conference)
Bottom Line: Aside from a miracle, no team in the MWC, WAC, or Big Sky comes within 20 points of the Dukies.
Which brings us to the West Coast Conference, and in all likeliood, the only WCC team that will be playing in March: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs may be the top team west of the Rockies, but have not played well enough to win versus the top teams in the country this year. Losses to Connecticut, Memphis, and Washington are “good losses,” in the eyes of the Selection Committee because of the opponents' merit; however, they are still losses. The Zags match up as well as anyone can against Duke, but lack size off the bench to contend with Williams and McRoberts. And even if they get 6’11”Josh Heytvelt back in time for March, the kid has just 4 collegiate games under his belt.
A Duke-Gonzaga game could be the highlight of the Tourney. It would feature four NBA Lottery prospects with tandems Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista going head-to-head against Williams and Redick, and might settle the Player of the Year question once-and-for-all.
Gonzaga scores a ton of points and shoot greats a high free-throw percentage, but when you look at the 'Zags' assist numbers, the story of past NCAA Tournaments is told. They run roughshod over the WCC by creating their own shots, and blow lesser teams away offensively. Then they get to the Tourney, and let a shooter i.e. Dan Dickau, Blake Stepp, win or lose the game for them. If the shooter gets cold and starts forcing shots, you see the door close rapidly.
The Bulldogs have the best shot of any team in the West to beat Duke. The question is: can Morrison/Batista score enough on the offensive end to offset their lack of defensive pressure?
Bottom Line: Morrison outscores Redick, then Redick takes home another Duke championship with both teams' final scores in the 90's.