The No. 5 seed Utah Utes have a date with the No. 1 seeded Duke Blue Devils this evening at 7:45 MT in Houston. The talk in the national media seems to be that the Utes season will end today and Duke should survive to play in the Elite Eight. However there are a few members of the national media, namely Myron Medcalf of ESPN, that believe Utah has an opportunity to pull this game out. So exactly what do the Utes need to do to pull the upset?
Everyone by now probably knows the name Jahlil Okafor. He is Duke's mega talented 6'11 270 lb. big man who the entire Duke offense runs through. He is priority number one for the Utes going into this game. When Okafor is playing his game uninterrupted, there is not much that can be done to stop the Blue Devils. The freshman is perhaps the best offensive player in the country, averaging 18.1 points per game and 8.7 rebounds per game while shooting 66% from the field. Duke likes to get the ball inside to Okafor because physically and skill wise, he is a mismatch for almost every team in the country. Once Okafor gets going down low, things open up for guys like Quinn Cook and Justice Winslow, who both shoot over 40% from three point range. Utah however provides and interesting matchup for Okafor in 7 -foot center Jakob Poeltl.
Poeltl has been a freshman revelation himself this year and could prove to be a worthy adversary to Okafor, provided he can stay out of foul trouble. The run to the Sweet Sixteen has shown what the Utes can do when Poeltl is on the floor and playing well. When things are working inside for the big Austrian, the Utes are able to run a similar inside-out offense to what Duke likes to run. The defense has to guard the inside against Poeltl and Delon cutting into the lane, freeing up Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge outside for open threes. The matchup between Poeltl and Okafor will be key to the game. If either gets in foul trouble early, their team will be at a distinct disadvantage.
The game plan should be to get the ball down low early and often try to draw fouls from Okafor specifically and take him out of his game. The Utes will need Delon Wright to be aggressive driving the lane and running the pick and roll with Poeltl. If the Utes can get two quick fouls on Okafor to start the game, Poeltl should be able to make some noise in the paint. If the script gets flipped and Poeltl picks up two quick fouls, the Utes could be in for a long night.
Duke is unquestionably the better offensive basketball team. They average 80.6 points per game and shoot over 50% from the field as a team. The guard duo of Quinn Cook an Tyus Jones combined with Okafor and Winslow will be an extremely tall order for the Utes to defend against. If this game turns into a run and gun affair, the Utes will be outclassed pure and simple.
Where the Utes do hold an advantage however is defensively. The Utes boast one of the best defenses in the country where Duke does not. The Blue Devils have enough firepower that they can usually win games by outscoring their opponents. For Utah to win this game, the Utes will need to live up to their defensive reputation and hold the Blue Devils outside shooters well below their season average of 40% from three. In addition Utah will likely need to create a few turnovers to pick up some easy baskets in transition and turn momentum.
To beat Duke tonight, the Utes must do three things. Get Okafor in foul trouble, giving Poeltl and Bachynski the advantage down low. Delon Wright must score more. He has been relatively quiet in the scoring column so far in the tournament and Utah will need points from their star player to beat Duke. Lastly, defend the perimeter. Don't allow Justice Winslow and Quinn Cook to shoot Duke to victory. If the Utes can do these three things, the second 1 seed of the tournament could very well fall.
You can catch the action tonight on CBS where the game will be televised at 7:45 MT.