Monday, December 2, 2013

NIT Season Tip-Off Final Observations: Arizona 72, Duke 66

Fouad Egbaria

For those with unrealistic expectations, Michigan's 5-2 start to the season could be considered a disappointment. However, when tethered to reality and understanding the difficulties of breaking in a new point guard --not to mention replacing a player of Trey Burke's caliber, not to mention Tim Hardaway Jr., who is having a solid start to his NBA career in New York-- then perhaps such a start is not so surprising. 

With that said, if Michigan is planning on entering the Big Dance with a decent seed, they will need to grab a big non-conference win or two before entering what should once again be a brutal Big Ten slate. Fortunately for the Wolverines, Duke and Arizona (and even Stanford, to a lesser extent), present the Wolverines with that opportunity. 

I was lucky enough to attend Friday NIT Tip-Off final between Duke and Arizona at Madison Square Garden, so I figured this would be a good space to kill two birds with one stone with some of my observations on both teams. 


First, a general outline of the game itself is probably in order. After sitting through the triple overtime Alabama-Drexel game, the first half of Duke-Arizona provided an enormous step up in the speed and level of play. The Blue Devils and Wildcats battled it out in what was an incredibly entertaining first half of basketball, one in which the largest lead was only five (11-6, Duke). 

Duke went into the half up, 36-33, with eight points from Jabari Parker in the half's final five minutes (he finished the first half with 10). Brandon Ashley led the Wildcats at the half with 11 points of his own. 

A Quinn Cook three six minutes into the second half gave Duke a 43-37 lead, its largest of the game. Sitting in MSG, however, you got the sense that if Duke got a stop and scored again, things might start to get out of hand. 

Luckily for Sean Miller U of A squad, a dunk and an Aaron Gordon three a minute later cut the lead to one, and it was back to being the tight game it had been all along. 

The Wildcats kept rolling, rattling of a 12-2 run that eventually gave them a 4-point lead with 8:16 remaining. The pressure was then squarely on Duke's shoulders, but especially Parker's, who had only scored two points in the second half to that point (from the free throw line). 

Rodney Hood, by far Duke's best player on Friday, pitched in an and-1 to cut the lead to one, but the Wildcats kept pushing, this time with an 8-0 run to gain a 57-48 lead, ultimately the knockout punch, with about six and a half minutes to play. 

Hood answered the call again, this time burying a shot from beyond the arc, but Duke couldn't defend the paint, allowing consecutive Arizona dunks. 

Duke made a concerted effort to get the ball to Parker for some late game hero/iso ball, but it was too little too late. After the inevitable free throwing shooting marathon, Arizona emerged with a big 72-66 victory in the same tournament that Michigan won a year ago (which is kind of hard to believe). 

Some general observations in bullet form (this will be mostly Duke-centric, as the Wolverines play them tomorrow): 
  • If Jabari Parker isn't on, Duke, as has often been the case in the past, will live and die by the three. For whatever reason Parker was completely quiet during the first 15 minutes of the second half. In that span, Parker turned it over four times and went 0-for-4 from the field, which included a missed dunk.
  • Many have compared Parker's game to another guy who plays in Madison Square Garden: Carmelo Anthony. After watching him live on Friday (and then seeing the Knicks last night at MSG), I have to say the comparison is fairly accurate. But, like Carmelo --and the Knicks in general-- Parker seemed content at times to rise up and just take jumpers when further probing toward the basket would have served his team better. I don't expect Michigan to shut Parker down, but there is a chance that Parker could, in effect, shut himself down if he relies on his jumper like he did in the second half of this game. 
  • Outside of Rodney Hood, who scored 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting (plus eight rebounds), I'm not sure that Duke has any other offensive options that are incredibly scary. Quinn Cook, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, is averaging 13.4 ppg this season and had 17 and 13 against Alabama and Arizona, respectively. As a third option, he is pretty solid, and he can shoot the three as well (38.2 percent, including a combined 4-for-6 against Alabama and Arizona). With that said, I think Michigan can live with taking its chances with doubling Parker and hoping he either turns it over or passes it out into a miss from the perimeter. 
  • Arizona shot 55% from 2-point land. Arizona forwards Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon, in particular, gave Duke trouble, scoring a combined 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting from the field (including a combined 2-for-2 from three), good for an eFG% of 79%. 
  • Arizona's 7-footer, Kaleb Tarczewski, bumbled his way to four turnovers, all seemingly on traveling calls around the rim (I know that's probably not right, but that's what it seems like in retrospect). With that said, he pulled down a game-high nine boards, added a block and only committed two fouls in 28 minutes. If Michigan can get anything close to that from Jon Horford, minus the turnovers, John Beilein will be pretty happy. 
  • On that note, Arizona finished the game with eight blocks, with two apiece from Gordon, Rondae-Hollis Jefferson and Nick Johnson, plus another from Brandon Ashley. That total is probably not in the cards for Michigan, but Mitch McGary and Horford are capable of swatting their share of shots. Even so, whether or not they clean up on the glass will be a much bigger factor than a few blocked shots. 
  • Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell (a transfer from Duquesne) didn't really do a whole lot to wow me (10 points on 2-for-7 from the field and 6-for-6 from the line, four of those in the final three minutes), but I thought he did an excellent job in controlling the play and settling the 'Cats the few times that Duke pulled ahead. McConnell finished with eight assists to just two turnovers on the evening. Obviously, playing Duke at Cameron Indoor presents a far different challenge for Derrick Walton (it should be noted that McConnell is a junior in his fourth year of college basketball, if you include last season when he sat out following his transfer from Duquesne), but if Walton can get anywhere close to that sort of stat line, let the freshman point guard hype train run wild. 
Expecting a win at Cameron Indoor might be asking a bit much of this Michigan team. Sure, Duke has two losses to its name, but they came against name brands in Kansas and Arizona. 

Michigan has a shot; this is far from an invincible Duke team. If Caris LeVert and especially Glenn Robinson III come to play, Michigan has the athleticism to attack Duke in the painted area. 

With that said, as will often be the case, Mitch McGary will be the key in this one. If he can neutralize whatever Parker produces with his own array of putbacks, transition buckets and mid-range jumpers, Michigan seems to have a greater number of guys who can score than Duke. Whether those guys actually do score is obviously a big if, especially at Cameron Indoor. 

Despite a somewhat disappointing second half on Friday for Parker, he will be the best player on the floor tomorrow. If Michigan allows him to go off, a defeat is all but assured. 

I won't put a score prediction to this, but my gut tells me this will be a pretty close game throughout, with Duke pulling away a bit in the end. Barring a complete blowout (which I don't think will happen), though, this is another early season contest from which any derived meaning for Michigan extends far past whatever the final result ends up being. 

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