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March 22, 2011
Tournament Preview
Duke Rises in the West

by John Gasaway


West Regional
All games played at the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA

In theory the West bracket went more or less according to form -- certainly more so than any other region -- but you and I know better. A bounce here and a tip-in there and three of these teams are sitting at home right now. Duke was apparently told by some mischievous Michigan fan that the game had ended after 34 minutes, with the result that the Blue Devils ended up winning by just two points. San Diego State needed two overtime periods to get by Temple. And Arizona wins this region's Butler Bulldog prize, given annually to the team that keeps winning games that come down to the 40th minute. The Wildcats won their games against Memphis and Texas by a combined total of three points. Only Connecticut got here the boring VCU way, with double-digit wins over Bucknell and Cincinnati.

Log5 odds by Ken Pomeroy

Seed                Elite8  Final4  Final   Champ    Prev
 1   Duke            82.9    56.5    29.4    19.0    15.3
 2   San Diego St.   59.0    24.5     9.4     4.7     5.0
 3   Connecticut     41.0    13.8     4.3     1.8     1.0
 5   Arizona         17.1     5.3     1.1     0.3     0.2

Odds for the entire Sweet 16 are here.

Note that our good friend log5 thinks Duke got a huge assist when Arizona clawed its way past Texas 70-69. The Blue Devils would have still been favored in a game against the Longhorns, of course, but they would not have been given better than a four-in-five chance of winning, as they are against Sean Miller's team.

(3) Connecticut vs. (2) San Diego State (Thursday, 7:15 on CBS)
That buzz you hear in the background is the sound of feature writers toiling away on pieces that will say San Diego State is going to rely on its experience playing against BYU's Jimmer Fredette when the Aztecs face Kemba Walker and Connecticut. What a predictable angle! How boring! How absolutely 100 percent correct!

The Aztecs couldn't have asked for better preparation for playing the Huskies than facing the Cougars three times. A lot has changed with Connecticut over the course of their current seven-game winning streak, but one thing that has stayed exactly the same is the Huskies' relative degree of Kemba-reliance. For the season Walker's taking 31 percent of UConn's shots during his minutes; over the last seven games that number has raced all the way up to 32 percent. Walker's vital importance to this offense has been the same all year. And yet, clearly this is not February-variety Connecticut.

In a contest to see which team can put the ball in the basket the most times, one would assume that putting the ball in the basket is pretty important. The Huskies prove this is not in fact the case. Even during their current win streak they haven't shot the ball very well. But what they have done is rebound their misses and, pace Dan Hanner, get to the line. UConn's been much better at both of those things over the last seven games than they were over the course of 18 regular-season Big East games. (Fun fact: since the opening tip of the Big East tournament Alex Oriakhi has rebounded one in every five of his own team's misses during his minutes.) It's not too much to say that offensive boards and free throws have put the Huskies in the Sweet 16. Even tossing out lopsided wins against DePaul and Bucknell, over the past two weeks Connecticut 2.0 has scored 1.14 points per trip against five legitimate Big East opponents (Georgetown, Pitt, Syracuse, Louisville, and Cincinnati).

On the other hand if anyone can take care of their defensive glass and keep Kemba Walker off the line, it could well be San Diego State. The Aztecs' postseason has been marked by a striking lack of free throws -- from Steve Fisher's team and their opponents alike -- and keep in mind there's a game against Jimmer tossed in there. By the same token a front line anchored by Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas has been solid all year long on the defensive boards, pulling down more than seven in ten opponent misses in Mountain West play. I'm looking forward to seeing Oriakhi mix it up on his offensive glass with these guys.

I think there will be plenty of opportunities for Oriakhi to go after offensive rebounds: it's hard to envision Connecticut faring well from the field in this game. No Aztec opponent in the postseason, up to and including BYU, has done so. Temple got a 50th minute against this defense simply by defending SDSU equally well. My viewing suggestion: track Walker's trips to the line. If the zebras are in the mood to whistle -- or if the Aztecs uncharacteristically give them cause to -- it will be a huge point in Connecticut's favor.

(5) Arizona vs. (1) Duke (Thursday, 9:45 on CBS)
On paper Arizona is doomed. Put it this way, log5 likes Richmond's chances against Kansas better than it likes the Wildcats' odds against the Blue Devils. Why are laptops so eager to harsh the Cats' buzz?

Blame these suspicions on the Arizona defense. During the regular season Sean Miller's team offset poor interior D with incredible defense beyond the arc, but since the tip-off of the Pac-10 tournament the Cats' perimeter D has been average at best. Teams that have met up with Arizona in the postseason have made 36 percent of their threes and 53 percent of their twos.

That being said, this team does have Derrick Williams, and the Blue Devils have been known to give opposing big men the gift of incredible stats on occasion. (Not to mention Michigan fared quite well inside against Mike Krzyzewski's team.) Can Arizona simply score enough points to make up for their suspect D? We'll get to find out. Other things being equal the collision between the Duke offense and the Arizona defense should produce plenty of Blue Devil points. In the postseason Coach K's team has made 58 percent of its twos. I can envision Nolan Smith this week watching tape of an unprepossessing Memphis offense carving up the Cats with dribble penetration and sleeping pretty well at night.

Speaking of the backcourt in Durham, the question of Kyrie Irving's health and how much he can help his team will be very important very soon, but we're probably not there quite yet. Duke doesn't figure to need the freshman in order to be better than Arizona for 40 minutes. That is unless the Blue Devils pick up where they left off over the last five or so minutes against Michigan. If that strange lethargy recurs in the face of a proven man-weapon like Williams all bets are off.

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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