While neither team is guaranteed a spot in the finals, both behemoths made statements against formidable competition on Thursday, giving their collision course an intractable feel. After watching the Cavs demolish Louisville in an afternoon contest, the Blue Devils made easy work of a tough Notre Dame team desperate for a win that might have vouchsafed their chances for an NCAA Tournament selection.
Duke has spent the past several weeks ironing out the kinks from a squad whose overwhelming talent made them a popular preseason pick for the national championship. The mid-season switch to a 2–3 zone turned a defensive liability into a strength, and Coach K and his staff have worked hard to find the right rotation combinations to best suit their deep roster. First and foremost, the team has endeavored to get co-scoring machines Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley on a page together, a process that has proven frustrating for long stretches of the season.
That was not a problem on Thursday, and in many ways, the Blue Devils’ 88–70 triumph represents the full flowering of the nightmare matchup Duke has always threatened to become. The first half saw Allen in sharpshooter mode, knocking down five straight three-pointers to stake the team to an early lead. A gutty Irish squad, playing their third game in three days, showed moxie by closing to within four at halftime. But the second half was the Marvin Bagley show.
A no-brainer lottery pick in this year's NBA draft, Bagley has frequently proven an unstoppable scorer in his freshman campaign—too big, too skilled, and too determined to be contained on the offensive side of the ball. On this night he was the best player in the country, pouring in thirty-three points, including twenty-three in a dominating second-half performance that only concluded when Coach K called off the dogs and brought him to the bench late in the contest.
It speaks to a deeply unusual confluence of circumstance that it has taken me this long to even mention the Blue Devils semifinal opponent. You know, the crosstown rivals in robin’s egg blue? What are they called again? Last night, UNC was impressive in overcoming a 14–0 early deficit and grinding out a no-drama victory against Miami. Could they spoil the Blue Devils’ designs on a conference championship and a big-ticket revenge match with Virginia?