The bigger of tonight’s two ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchups features the second-ranked Duke Blue Devils and the fourth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, and it has all the makings of a good battle. If nothing else it certainly should be more competitive than last night’s Indiana-North Carolina debacle.
The Blue Devils have gotten off to a hot start, with a victory over the then third-ranked and defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats, and convincing wins over the then nineteenth-ranked Memphis Tigers, VCU Rams and then the second-ranked Louisville Cardinals to win the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament last weekend. All five of their starters are averaging double figures in points and are led by Mason Plumlee (19.7 PPG, 10.0 RPG), who is playing like the 2013 NBA Draft lottery pick he is being projected to be.
This is a solid starting five, which is not something Duke has had a lot of in recent years, and will be key to Duke’s chances of winning a national championship this season. If one of Plumlee, Seth Curry, Rasheed Sulaimon, Ryan Kelly or Quinn Cook has an off night, the other four are there to pick up the slack, and having to deal with that sort of balance is something most teams in the NCAA are not equipped to do. The Buckeyes will have their hands full and it remains to be seen whether they will be up to the test.
The Buckeyes are a question mark coming into this challenge. While they are 4-0 and ranked in the Top 5 in the nation, they have yet to play a decent team and so have been padding their stats against mediocre competition (with all due respect for what I’m sure is a proud basketball tradition for the University of Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos). This is not to say they won’t perform well against Duke and have no chance to win—because they certainly can do well and will have a chance—but they have yet to accomplish anything that would suggest they absolutely should win this game.
Tonight’s matchup will be a huge test to see how the trio of Deshaun Thomas (24.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG), Aaron Craft (14.3 PPG, 5.3 APG) and Lenzelle Smith, Jr. (11.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG) respond to the challenge of facing a balanced Duke squad. What if one or more of these guys struggles or gets into foul trouble? Can their role players—Shannon Scott, LaQuinton Ross, Sam Thompson and Evan Ravenel—step up in their absence and do enough to keep the Buckeyes close?
Neither team is particularly great at rebounding (Duke averages 33 per game, Ohio State 35), and they respectively rank 69th and 54th in the nation in assists, so this a problem area for both squads as well. Ohio State ranks 9th in the nation in shooting percentage (52.1%), but it will be interesting to see how they perform against an athletic, defensive-minded squad like Duke. Ohio State is a smaller team, so if they struggle inside early against the twin towers—Plumlee and Kelly—their perimeter game will have to bail them out. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, they shoot the three-ball at just under a 48% clip, so this could actually work to their advantage.
Given the Blue Devils’ depth, the fact they are playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium with the Cameron Crazies in tow, and have been battle-tested against actual opponents, this is the Blue Devils’ game to lose. That being said, however, this is why they play the games. The Buckeyes have a chance to come into Cameron and show that they are a genuine force to be reckoned with rather than the paper-thin fourth-ranked team they look like now. Let the games begin!