March 20, 2009

The Big Preview: It's Texas vs. Duke

The Basics

The Texas Longhorns have had shots at Duke on the court over the last few seasons, but they haven't been able to tame the Blue Devil beast. On Saturday night, the seventh-seeded Texas Longhorns get a chance to win the one that counts when they take on the No.2 seeded Blue Devils in a second-round match-up against in East Region action of the NCAA Tournament. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:15PM (central) and the game will be aired regionally on CBS, with Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg calling the action.

Series vs. Duke

Duke leads the series 3-0 (Last game: Duke 97-66 in 2006)

History is no longer on Texas' side

If the Texas Longhorns had almost all of the history on their side during their match-up with Minnesota, the reverse will be true on Saturday night against the Blue Devils.

Although Texas' recent play in the NCAA Tournament is on par with the Blue Devils own recent post-season success, the series history between the three teams is as one-sided as any in UT's history.

The two teams have met three times during the current decade and the Longhorns haven't given a respectable performance in any of them, as Duke won by margins of 26 in 2001, 28 in 2004 and 31 in 2006.

On top of that, the Blue Devils are 29-4 all-time in NCAA Tournament games played in the state of North Carolina, including wins in their last nine straight games. Even more impressive, Duke is 11-0 in NCAA Tournament games played at the Greensboro Coliseum (1986, 1989, 1992, 2001 and 2006).

Abrams heats up against Minnesota

Senior guard A.J. Abrams has had a bit of an uneven season, but he erupted against the Gophers in a big way to kick-start his final NCAA post-season.

The former Round Rock McNeil star set a Texas record with eight three-pointers and led the Longhorns with 20 points against Tubby Smith's Gophers.

Abrams will enter Saturday's game with the fourth-highest total of three-point makes (39) in NCAA history (11 games).

Freshman emerging as key player

There were times last late this season when it looked like Varez Ward was playing his way out of the Longhorn rotation, especially with the emergence of sophomore Dogus Balbay, but the true freshman has emerged as an integral part of Texas' post-season success.

In the opening round win over Minnesota, Ward scored seven points, dished out four assists and had three rebounds.

During the last three contests, Ward averaged 7.7 points and 2.7 rebounds, while converting 7 of 13 shots (53.8 percent) from the field and none of 12 attempts from the free throw line.

The Leading Man?

If anyone can strap the Longhorns onto their back and carry the team into the Sweet 16, it might be junior big man Dexter Pittman.

Over the last six games, Pittman is averaging a team-best 16.8 points and 9.0 rebounds in 26.8 minutes per contest while shooting 63.9 percent from the field.

Pittman scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in Thursday's win over Minnesota.

NBA Longhorn Notes

Former Naismith Award winner Kevin Durant played in his second game since returning from the disabled list and poured in 28 points and grabbed six rebounds in a 103-96 loss to Chicago. In his return on Monday night against San Antonio, he scored a team high 25 points as the Thunder beat the Spurs 78-76.

Former All-American Lamarcus Aldridge continues to play well in his third season with the Portland Trailblazers, averaging 18.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game this season. The third-year pro missed Thursday clash with Cleveland because of a concussion he suffered earlier in the week against Indiana.

About Duke…

In their first-round win over Minnesota, the Longhorns faced a team that didn't have enough scoring options.

That won't be the case against the Blue Devils, who are not close to being a perfect team, but can absolutely put points up on scoreboard.

Leading the way for the Blue Devils is a trio of scorers that consists of 6-4 junior guard Gerald Henderson, 6-8 sophomore forward Kyle Singler and 6-5 junior guard Jon Scheyer. The three combine to average 48 points per game and everything the Blue Devils do offensively will go through these three.

Henderson is probably the biggest difference maker on the Duke roster because of his athleticism, ability to dribble-drive and three-point prowess. From an ability standpoint, there won't be a better player on the court for either side and matching up with Henderson might be the most difficult task facing the Longhorns. Because the entire Duke backcourt checks in at 6-4 or taller, look for freshman Varez Ward to play a lot in this game and he could be the one challenged with trying to lock Henderson up.

Singler is another guy that possesses size and versatility. Although he's not a physical imposing player, Singler can be a very good finisher around the basket and he cannot be left alone around the perimeter because he's hitting nearly 40 of his three-point shots this year and he likes to shoot them in high volumes. Just like Henderson, his inside-outside game makes him a tough player to match up with for most teams, but the presence of Damion James could be a neutralizer. If James can flat out win his match-up on Singler, the Blue Devils become a much easier to team to guard offensively. James will need to bring his A-game because Singler is a warrior that will run through a wall for his team, but he cannot play above the rim like James.

The key to the entire Blue Devil puzzle might be their starting point guard. Duke was going through a 2-4 stretch in ACC play with Scheyer moved over to the point guard position full-time and the decision might have been a season-saver, as he provides them a steady quarterback that can take of the ball and get his team into its offense. He's not going to wow anyone with his quickness or athleticism, but the kid's a player and he doesn't make many mistakes.

Don't be surprised if the Longhorns put Justin Mason on Scheyer for much of the game and that's a man-to-man match-up that the Longhorns probably like.

There's no question that the Blue Devils can scorch the nets from the outside and they can be a match-up nightmare for teams on defense because of their ability to extend the game 25-feet out, but they are not an especially physical team in the front-court and they don't have the combination of size and skill to match-up real well with the Longhorns.

The Blue Devils love to play man-to-man, but expect them to switch into a 1-3-1 zone trap in this game because James, Gary Johnson and Dexter Pittman are going to be tough match-ups for the Blue Devils and depending on the flow of the game, they might not be able to stick strictly with man-to-man.. Junior 6-8 forward Lance Thomas will start out on Pittman, but he doesn't have the size to contain Pittman and if the Texas big-man doesn't get into foul trouble, he could have his way inside against the Blue Devils.

Look for 7-1 junior Brian Zoubek to get more than the 11.8 minutes per game that he usually plays because he's the only guy on the Duke roster that can match-up with Pittman from a size stand-point. The downside of playing Zoubek is that he doesn't give you much in the way of offense, although he can be effective on offensive rebounds and at the free-throw line. But, if he's on the floor, he's also going to slow Duke down some in terms of pace and that's a risky trade in this game.

One of the wild cards in this game for the Blue Devils could be 6-4 freshman wingman Elliot Williams. Although he's not a strong shooter, he's a fantastic defender because of his length. Anything he gives Duke on offense is a bonus, but Texas can ill-afford for him to emerge as a 10-point scorer because there will already be enough issues trying to match points with their other offensive weapons.

Heck, while we're talking about offensive weapons, the Longhorns can't forget about Nolan Smith, who was bumped out of the line-up by Williams, but scored 13 points in Duke's first-round win. Despite his success on Thursday, he's only had one other double-digit scoring game in Duke's last 11 games.

Overall, this Duke team goes nine players deep and they'll all play more than 15 minutes because they play so hard defensively and play at such a brisk pace that they'll constantly shuffle players in and out of the line-up.

The Three Keys

1. Stay out of foul trouble - The game is in Greensboro and you have to believe the Longhorns aren't going to get a single favorable whistle, which means that guys like Dexter Pittman and Damion James have to be careful about player control fouls. Texas cannot win this game if Pittman plays four minutes in the first half because of two quick fouls.

2. Start fast - In their three previous match-ups against Duke, the games were over by the first TV timeout. The Longhorns need to start strong and establish something offensively early ion the game. If Texas falls behind early, this thing could get away from them.

3. Dominate the glass - Texas has a huge advantage in the front-court and they need to eliminate offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities. One of the keys to this game will be the job done on the defensive glass by the Texas guards because Duke will spread out a defense and their guards do a great job of slashing to the basket for offensive put-backs. Block-out, block-out and more blocking out.

The Texas line-up

The starters

Guard - A.J. Abrams - 5-10 senior - (16.6 points, and 2.1 rebounds)
Guard - Dogus Balbay - 6-0 sophomore (3.3 points and 3.2 assists)
Guard - Justin Mason - 6-2 junior - (6.2 points and 4.0 assists)
Forward - Damion James - 6-7 junior - (15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds)
Forward/center - Dexter Pittman - 6-10 junior - (10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds)

The next five

Guard - Varez Ward - 6-2 freshman (3.8 points and 2.2 rebounds)
Guard - Harrison Smith - 6-2 junior - (1.9 points and 1.6 rebounds)
Forward - Gary Johnson - 6-7 sophomore - (10.2 points and 5.3 rebounds)
Forward - Connor Atchley - 6-10 senior - (4.7 points and 3.2 rebounds)
Forward/center - Clint Chapman - 6-10 sophomore - (2.1 points and 1.6 rebounds)
Forward - Matt Hill - 6-10 sophomore - (2.0 points and 1.6 rebounds)

The Duke line-up

The starters

Guard - Jon Scheyers - 6-5 junior - (15.0 points and 3.7 rebounds)
Guard - Elliot Williams - 6-4 freshman - (4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds)
Guard - Gerald Henderson - 6-4 junior - (16.5 points and 4.8 rebounds)
Forward - Kyle Singler - 6-8 sophomore - (16.5 points and 7.7 rebounds)
Center - Lance Thomas - 6-8 junior - (5.4 points and 3.5 rebounds)

The next four

Guard - Greg Paulus - 6-1 senior - (5.1 points and 1.4 assists)
Guard - Nolan Smith - 6-2 junior - (8.4 points and 2.2 rebounds)
Forward - David McClure - 6-6 senior (2.0 points and 3.5 rebounds)
Center - Brian Zoubek - 7-1 junior - (4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds)

And finally…

In our quest to provide you with a tidbit in each preview that teaches you something you might not have otherwise known, we give you this…

28.3

That's the average margin of defeat in three games against Duke for the Longhorns. It's time to make amends for that.


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