Tonight I’ll be in attendance as the UTC Mocs attempt to derail the Stephen Curry express in Chattanooga, but while that game is going on, there’s a pretty good slate of other college basketball games.
Michigan and Ohio State will play a good bubble-watcher’s game as the next in their rivalry series. #3 Pitt will try to keep up with the Big East leaders as they face #21 Villanova. Tennessee hosts SEC West leader LSU. The one I’ll be following most closely, though, is #1 Duke at #6 Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons were the #1 team a week ago, and it’s possible (or maybe probable) that neither is the best team in the ACC, since Carolina still looms large.
Duke vs. Wake Forest
KenPom currently rates Duke #1, but Duke’s best ACC opponent thus far has been Florida State (#57). The Blue Devils have beaten three of KenPom’s top 20 teams from other conferences (Purdue, Xavier, Georgetown), which is why they’re ranked so highly. The road loss to Michigan in December remains their only blemish, and Duke had already beaten the Wolverines earlier in the season, so the Devils are riding a 10-game win streak into this game.
Tonight’s Duke-Wake game, though not quite as enthralling as the looming KenPom #1 vs. #2 matchup with UNC, should be an exciting game, and it’s a shame I’ll miss it. The Deacons really like to push the pace of the game, ranking seventh nationally at 74.8 adjusted possessions per game, while Duke ranks 85th. That should make this a fast-paced contest, probably somewhere in the upper-70s in terms of possessions for each side.
Recalling Wake’s win over North Carolina, Duke will have to figure out how to contain sophomore guard Jeff Teague, who takes a lot of shots and shoots very efficiently for a guard. His primary weakness is turning the ball over, so Duke will hope to take advantage of that as one of the nation’s top 20 teams in steal rate.
Both teams are relatively young. With the demotion of Greg Paulus, no senior starts for either squad, although the Devils still have an average experience level of 1.69 years, in the middle of the pack nationwide. Wake ranks #270 with just 1.33 years of experience.
On paper, Duke looks very difficult to stop, with the sixth-ranked adjusted offense in the country: 110.3 points per 100 possessions. That will be a strong matchup with Wake’s 5th-ranked defense at 84.2. However, Duke’s defense has been even better this year, second overall at 81.2 (Louisville ranks 1st), while Wake’s offense is just 47th nationally. Plus, it’s a road game, and that edge is enough to make KenPom’s prediction a close 74-71 Duke finish.
UT-Chattanooga vs. Davidson
The game I’ll be attending should be a good one, too, although KenPom favors Davidson by 12, 82-70. This will be my first chance to see Stephen Curry in person, but it’s also a matchup between SoCon division leaders. UTC, at 5-4, has a half-game lead over Samford and Western Carolina in the North division, while Davidson (9-0) has a two-game edge on College of Charleston in the South. This game could be a preview of the SoCon championship game, which will also be played in Chattanooga. UTC could make all of CBS’ prepared fluff pieces on Stephen Curry worthless with an upset performance at home in March.
Having built up UTC a little bit there, I’ll come back to the fact that Davidson is still favored by double-digits in this road game. Curry is averaging 29.3 point per game, and just like every other Southern Conference team, the Mocs aren’t going to have an answer for him defensively. They’ll need a great scoring effort from their own not-pronounced-”Steven” guard Stephen McDowell just to keep up.
For what it’s worth, KenPom gives Davidson a 63% chance to finish the SoCon regular season undefeated while rating UTC just a slight favorite over Western Carolina to maintain the lead in the SoCon North. The Wildcats have lost to three of KenPom’s top 15 (Duke, Oklahoma, Purdue) and beaten one of them (West Virginia). They also beat the only other top-100 team they’ve played (N.C. State).
Getting down to the numbers, the Mocs are ranked slightly below average nationally on both offense and defense, although they play at a fast 71.5 possession pace. Davidson also likes to play up-tempo, but they rank in the top 50 on both sides of the ball.
The matchup to watch if this game stays close may be at the free-throw line, where the Mocs shoot an abysmal 63.9%. Forwards Nicchaeus Doaks and Khalil Hartwell are the main culprits, since they both get to the line fairly often, and both are poor shooters. Stephen McDowell, if he takes it to the basket, can make his shots at the stripe.
Davidson, on the other hand, shoots relatively well at the free throw line. Perhaps most importantly, Curry is an 85.4% shooter there, and you can bet he’ll be handling the ball at the end of the game. Other than Curry, though, the Wildcats don’t have anyone who gets to the line remotely often. The team ranks in the bottom 25 nationally in free throw chances per field goal even with Curry’s contributions.
So, there you have it. Forget about the Super Bowl for a minute and enjoy some college basketball tonight. I don’t believe the Davidson-UTC game is on TV anywhere, but of course you can see Duke-Wake on ESPN.