We must begin by saying the Jahlil Okafor is really good. I’m not messing around and neither is he. Okafor scored in single figures only once this season and his team won that game by 43 and he was 2-2 from the field. He played 19 minutes. Here’s what it can look like:
But you can hope to score on him. As well as his teammates. Which might be where the Utes have their best opportunity to win this game. I love the Utes’ defense, but it’s their versatility on the offensive end – particularly with a 12-13 NCAA shooting Jakob Poeltl – that gives them their best chance in this game.
Utah Offense vs. Duke Defense
We know what the Utes do well. They effectively get to the basket either by post entry or Delon-ing where they connect on 52.5% of their shots. If the close looks aren’t available the ball is kicked out to the perimeter where the Utes make 40.5% of their threes (8th best in the country). They’re patient, taking the 20th longest possessions in the country, with a wildly high eFG% with 5-or-less seconds remaining on the shot clock. Seriously that’s insane. That 52.1% eFG% would rank 67th nationally. Of course Utah’s overall 55.9% eFG% ranks 10th so they’re good at scoring no matter the time on the clock. That’s Utah.
As for Duke’s defense, it’s flawed. It isn’t bad but an inability to limit dribble penetration has certainly been a concern for the Blue Devils. At times its been masked with a zone but that suggests a collective. If Okafor – or anyone else for that matter – isn’t in the right place, the zone defense is rendered ineffective. And if dribble penetration is the primary issue surrounding your defense, well I know a guy who can exploit that: Delon Wright! It’s exactly what the senior does in creating for his teammates and Duke just might be the perfect team for him to exploit. His ability to get into the lane for a shot of his own or to create a three for his teammates is amongst the best in the nation.
Of course one of the places Duke excels is in limiting three point attempts. Just 27.7% of shots against the Blue Devils are from deep. When the Blue Devils have been beat, however, it’s been at the hands of great three point shooting (and offense in general):
L, NC State, 10-16, 63% 3FG%
L, Miami, 10-20, 50% 3FG%
L, Notre Dame, 8-18, 44% 3FG%
L, Notre Dame, 2-8, 25% 3FG%
The last seems an anomaly but it’s worth pointing out that the second loss to Notre Dame was Duke’s worst offensive performance (we’ll call it #NotreDefense) of the season. Now wrap your mind around that Duke’s worst offensive performance was 98.5 points per 100 possessions or equal to Colorado’s average conference game. Indeed we’re dealing an offensive juggernaut.
Of course Justise Winslow has emerged the most frightening defensive stopper since settling into the role of power forward for this team. Someone to incite Duke’s defense is a horrifying proposition to the rest of the nation because it would generally appear they have the athletes to do it. Just perhaps a lack of execution. In short, Justise seems to make defense cool.
But allow me one last ND-Duke note. Perhaps our most interesting of the preview. In their first loss to the Irish, the Dookies allowed Jerian Grant whatever he wanted and he took it: 23 points, 6 boards, 12 assists. For the season, Grant and his Irish twice beat the Blue Devils (and were blown out once). Now if you look at KenPom’s similarity scores, guess who Delon Wright’s #1 comparable is? Jerian Grant.
Utah Defense vs. Duke Offense
Utah is an extremely sound defense, amongst the tops in the land. They’re going to have to play well against Duke because it’s what they do. It’s their least variable skill. As we noted, the worst Duke performance was at an above average Pac-12 team’s effectiveness. The Utes have got to be on their game but Duke will get points one way or another. That’s ultimately why I don’t think Utah wins this game explicitly because of their defense. They have the kind of player (AN EXACT REPLICA) capable of beating the Blue Devils on the offensive end. That’s what this game comes down to for the Utes.
And if their defense is even just slightly off, they’re screwed.
We already noted the unstoppable Okafor who had 26 points against San Diego State last weekend which was more than half of Utah’s total against the Aztecs. He’s an absolute front court load. But the Utes might have enough to slow that attack. They limit opponents to the fourth lowest 2FG% in the nation aided by tremendous rim protection that mathematically looks something like: 31.1% of shots at the rim (99th) and 50.5% FG% there (13th). Conversely, Duke ranks 81st in % of shots at the rim and 8th in FG% there. Something have to give.
When we’re talking Ute D vs. Devil O, this could be the game changer. They’re each designed to slow/attack this very scenario. If the Utes can ever so slightly alter this general Duke strength, it’d be upsetting to an offense connecting on 56.8% of their 2pt FGs (3rd nationally – and remember the Utes have the 4th best defense against this).
The Devils will take threes but not an alarming amount. They will make them, however.
Of course things aren’t all Okafor. You know the names: Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Winslow, Grayson Allen, and Matt Jones. I mean, M. Jones is their ‘worst’ contributor at a 113 ORtg. That’s better than anyone on UCLA, Cal, Oregon State, or USC. Like I said, juggernaut.
Can Utah win this game?
Absolutely. They are an elite defense and they’re facing an elite offense. Similarly, Utah is a good offensive team and Duke is a good defensive team. Elite vs. Elite. Good vs. Good. I love the way Jakob Poeltl has been playing and that’s reason for optimism. Additionally they have Delon Wright, one of the best players in the country with a skill set proven to give the Blue Devils problems.
But the thing about March is how well can you adjust. We’ve watched Utah systematically dismantle the Pac-12, but when that system has been challenged, the Utes have struggled. Oregon did it twice, outrebounding the Utes in Eugene then attacking – successfully – the basket in Vegas (18-34 inside the arc). Delon Wright didn’t score in the game’s final 9:46 against Arizona during which the Wildcats closed out the Utes on a grinding 22-10 run. Washington!?
Which is why I’m actually somewhat encouraged by Delon’s recent struggles and the close games Utah has found themselves in. Competition be damned, the Utes have found a pair of ways to win (0.83 ppp defense vs. SFA then 1.29 ppp offense vs. Georgetown). Last weekend was the biggest difference in offensive and defensive efficiencies across back-to-back wins all year. It’s March and the Utes are winning by any means (isn’t that on an Adidas shirt?). This is encouraging.
The fact remains, however, that they’re playing one of the best teams in the country and will need one of their best performances of the season to win. They’re capable of the upset, I’m just not sure they’ll do it.
One thing is for sure, no matter the outcome, there’s really only one Coach K. Right, Coach Larry?