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March 24, 2010
Tournament Preview
Duke on the Brink

by John Gasaway

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South Regional
Log5 probabilities for the Sweet 16 are here.

You should really follow that link right there, because on paper Duke's chances of winning two games in Houston and proceeding to Indianapolis fairly jump off the page. A week ago at this time we were saying not so fast, conspiracy theorists, Mike Krzyzewski's team is going to have a surprisingly tough second-round game against the winner of Cal-Louisville. Well, I dare say Duke thrashed the men from Berkeley in a fairly emphatic manner. They now face post-Hummel Purdue and, if all goes according to plan, the winner of Saint Mary's-Baylor. The Bears in particular are capable of posing a tougher challenge than is commonly realized, but it's also true that the Blue Devils are indeed very close to reaching their first Final Four in six years.

Games in this region are being played at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

(10) Saint Mary's vs. (3) Baylor (Friday, 7:27)
Who knew that Omar Samhan, of all people, would become the Tim Tebow of this NCAA tournament? I won't even bother doing one of those one-link-per-word sentences but, good grief, when the big guy pops up on TMZ, his arrival on the Scene will be official.

As for the scene on the floor, I don't expect Samhan to score 32 points on 13-of-16 shooting against Ekpe Udoh the way he did against Villanova. But, the past few days of podcasts and tweets notwithstanding, Saint Mary's is much more than just Samhan. In WCC play the Gaels' three-point shooting was actually better, in relation to the conference average, than their very good two-point shooting. Granted Samhan's fingerprints are all over that as well--opposing defenses had to account for the big guy and thus gave open looks to the likes of Matthew Dellavedova (who's hit 41 percent of his threes this season), Mickey McConnell (52 percent--yes, 52 percent), and Ben Allen (39). But it works both ways. With this Saint Mary's offense you truly pick your poison.

Even better from a spectator's perspective, this offense actually looks as good as it really is. In the WCC the Gaels didn't do anything visually boring but cumulatively effective like free throws or offensive boards. (Unless a near-total lack of turnovers is boring.) Randy Bennett's team gets it done the old fashioned way, with accurate first shots from the field.

Which is all well and good, but our numbers here at Prospectus show Baylor as a decided favorite to win this game. Scott Drew's team may not have a Samhan-level source of tasty soundbites, but they do have an offense that's arguably as good as Saint Mary's to go along with a defense that's better than the Gaels'.

The Bears are an excellent shooting team from both sides of the arc, but of the two separate accomplishments represented in that statement the more impressive and prominent one is the two-point shooting. For Tweety Carter to make half his twos at a listed height of 5-11 is downright Jonny Flynn-like. Featured scorer Lace Dunn didn't quite reach the 50 percent level inside the arc this year, but he more than offsets that with unmatched accuracy on his threes and at the line. And unlike Saint Mary's, the Bears have been known to pick off an occasional offensive board, usually courtesy of Udoh. This is the best offense Drew has yet had in Waco.

Speaking of Udoh, the transfer from Michigan may not be as formidable as Samhan in terms of defensive rebounding, but he is the far superior shot blocker. Even better and much more unusual, Udoh is almost implausibly foul-free and thus is almost always on the floor.

One last note. If you're planning to attend the South games in person, I hope you get your fill of scoring from the Bears and Gaels. The nightcap could well come in under 125 total points.

(4) Purdue vs. (1) Duke (Syracuse: Friday, 9:57)
I'm going to write a preview of a game involving Purdue without once mentioning Robbie Hummel. (Well, except right there.) He's gone, he's not coming back, and the Boilers have now played seven full games and 471 possessions of basketball without him. Matt Painter's men are what they are right now: A bona fide Sweet 16 team good enough to beat Texas A&M in OT on a neutral floor. And if you saw the first half this team played against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament, you never would have guessed that the label "Sweet 16 team" would be what follows the adjective "bona fide" with respect to Purdue on March 24. Coach Painter, I salute you!

Now the bad news. Purdue as currently constituted is a tremendous defensive team that relies exclusively on its D, and I'm using the word "exclusively" with deliberation aforethought. Throw out the Minnesota debacle entirely and look just at the last two games against Siena and A&M. The Boilers have scored just 135 points in 150 possessions and, again, that's in two wins, one of which saw JaJuan Johnson go nuts (23-15 double-double) against an opponent that was overmatched in the post. Painter has pretty clearly reacted to his current roster situation by declaring the coaching equivalent of martial law. Specifically he has imposed an outright ban on offensive rebounding, lest it interfere with transition D. (In two tournament games Purdue has rebounded just 11 of their 72 misses.) Put simply, Painter is going to do everything in his power to keep the game close, as opposed to the luxury that he was afforded before February 24, doing everything in his power to win.

Having watched a 7-9 MAC team light up a three-seed from the Big East to the tune of better than 1.30 points per trip, I stand at the ready to see and believe anything in this tournament, up to and including Purdue scoring more points than Duke in this game. If it happens it will be far from the strangest occurrence I've beheld these past few days, truly. But if you saw what the Blue Devils were able to do on defense to an outstanding multi-threat Cal offense, it's a little disconcerting to contemplate what they might do to the present-day Boilers. Duke represents far and away the best defense the struggling Purdue offense has yet run across in the tournament.

The Pac-10-mocking world east of Winnemucca may not have been terribly impressed by an easy win over Cal, but I sure was. I thought the Bears, who had easily the Pac-10's best offense this year, would surely at least be competitive in that game. Instead Mike Montgomery's team was held to 53 points in a 58-possession contest. Now Duke gets Purdue. I don't doubt that there'll be entertainment value aplenty in the collision between the Blue Devils' excellent offense and the Boilers' outstanding D. Painter has a full kit of lock-down perimeter defenders to throw at Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, and Nolan Smith. It promises to make for great hoops viewing. But the game itself may well be decided when the ball is going in the opposite direction.

John also eschews wallowing in the Hummel-y past on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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