If last Saturday was Championship Saturday for the Texas football team, this Saturday is Opportunity Saturday for the Texas basketball team. The #2 ranked Horns will take on the #1 ranked Duke Blue Devils at 12:30 PM on national TV. The rankings are not very different. The players are equally skilled. The coaches are each respected across the country. But these two programs are far from the same.
Duke is the national college basketball program. North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, and Kansas all have storied histories, but no team has been more dominant over the last 20 years. The Blue Devils have reached the Final Four ten times in the last 19 years. Coach K has three rings and counting. Some of the best players of the past quarter century have played in Durham: Hurley, Laettner, Hill, Brand, etc. The list goes on and on. And recently, the national championship has gone through Duke. Connecticut 1999 and 2004, Maryland 2002, and North Carolina 2005 all had to beat Coach K before cutting down the nets in March. Fortunately, Texas is not playing the Duke legacy. And this year's Texas squad is as talented if not more talented than the '05-'06 Blue Devils. Rick Barnes and the Horns have a huge opportunity on Saturday to show the country that we play more than football well in Austin and take a huge step toward a national title of their own.
Both teams will enter the game 8-0. Texas has survived close games with Iowa and West Virginia. Duke was tested twice in New York earlier in the year against Drexel and Memphis and then again recently against Indiana and Virginia Tech. I would be shocked if this wasn't a close and well played game by both teams.
Areas to Watch:
- Frontcourt Strength: Both teams are led by outstanding big men. Duke has the reigning defensive Player of the Year in Shelden Williams. Williams (18 points, 10 rebounds) is a beast who controls the glass and has developed a better than advertised shooting touch to go with his raw strength inside. The Devils also start fabulous freshman, Josh McRoberts. McRoberts (7 points, 5 rebounds) toyed with declaring for the NBA before enrolling at Duke. McRoberts has pro-level low post moves and a knack for grabbing rebounds on both ends. We already know about the dominant Texas frontcourt of Lamarcus Aldridge, Brad Buckman, and PJ Tucker. Aldridge (17.5 points, 10 rebounds) has secured a double-double in every game but one. Buckman (13 points, 8 rebounds) is the strongest Longhorn and will likely draw the defensive assignment against Williams. Tucker (16 points, 8 rebounds) is a match up-problem every single game. Tucker has developed a mid-range jump shot to go with his uncanny ability to score near the basket at 6'5".
- Foul Shooting: Both teams have made more foul shots than their opponents have attempted. Whoever is able to attack the basket off the dribble and draw early fouls against their opponents' frontcourt players will have a huge advantage. Texas is shooting 66% as a team from the line. Duke is slightly better at 70%.
- Turnovers: Duke dominates their opponents with man to man pressure. They turn defense into easy offense better than any team in the country. Texas struggled earlier in the year with turnovers. Texas has turned the ball over 122 times to just 105 for Duke. If Texas is to win, they must win the turnover battle.
- PJ Tucker: There is no player more motivated than Tucker. Tucker played high school ball in North Carolina but wasn't recruited by Duke, North Carolina, or Wake Forest. The perennial ACC powers thought Tucker was too short to succeed as a power forward. Tucker has already proven all doubters wrong. He spoke openly about his desire when the Horns played Wake Forest last season. Duke lost starter DeMarcus Nelson to injury two weeks ago. Nelson is an outstanding defender and rebounder at the small forward spot. Without Nelson, Duke has no one who can match-up with Tucker. A solid performance from Tucker will go a long way toward a victory and an early Christmas present for PJ.
Duke: Duke must get big offensive games from both JJ Redick and Shelden Williams. Williams must also stay out of foul trouble and control the defensive glass. This year Redick has added a dribble drive to go with his amazing range. If Craig Winder or Tucker isn't able to control Redick, it could be a long afternoon for the Horns. Duke must also score in transition to get the partisan NY/NJ fans involved early. Last, the Devils must rebound well. Texas outrebounds opponents by double digits on a regular basis. If Duke wants to hold onto their number one ranking, they can't allow Texas to score on easy putbacks.
Texas: The Horns must control their turnovers, hit the open three point shot to prevent Duke's defense from collapsing, and outrebound the less athletic Dukies.
Prediction: Duke has the history, the coach, Redick and Williams, and will have the fans. Texas has an opportunity and won't waste it. Texas will get big games from Daniel Gibson, Tucker, and Aldridge. Lamarcus will have his coming out party on a national stage with another double-double. Gibson will drain threes and will use his quickness to penetrate against the much slower Greg Paulus. And Texas will use our athletic advantages at all five positions control the glass and force turnovers. Texas wins a close one 80-78.