No. 2 seed Duke (28-7) needs to win two games this weekend to reach the Final Four.
First up is an ACC rematch with No. 11 seed Syracuse (23-13) in the Sweet 16 on Friday in Omaha, Neb. Duke beat Syracuse, 60-44, on Feb. 24 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Many of your mailbag questions this time around center on this game and what the Blue Devils have to do to beat the Orange again.
I'm here to answer them. Now on to your questions:
@AC49er: What's the one player Duke can't afford having an off night in the tournament that would cost them an exit?
@jonmalexander: Duke freshman forward Marvin Bagley III. Bagley is Duke's best player. He was ACC Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year, and has not had too many off nights this season. Duke is 3-3 when Bagley scores 15 points or less, and 21-4 when he scores more than 15. He also missed four games with a right knee sprain.
The Blue Devils can win when Bagley is off. They showed that during the four-game stretch he was out in February. Duke won four consecutive ACC games, in one of its best defensive stretches of the season (It gave up less than 60 points in each game). But when Bagley isn't on, it puts more pressure on Duke to knock down 3-pointers.
Whenever Duke needed a sure basket this season, Bagley was Duke's first option, and more often than not he delivered.
Having both Bagley and fellow freshman forward Wendell Carter Jr. playing well at the same time puts more pressure on defenses. Both are among the best big men in the country. But Bagley is the one player Duke can't afford to have off his game.
@DaleDuke7: #AskJMA The past two games, Duke hasn’t really had the offensive drought that plagued them during the end of the ACC season and tournament. Is the problem solved, or is it just a result of playing undersized opponents and being able to do what they want inside?
@jonmalexander: Duke's matchups do have a lot to do with the lack of offensive droughts. Iona wasn't really the same level of competition as its ACC opponents. But the Blue Devils are also playing well right now.
When Bagley missed those four games, Duke's offense had to adjust and make changes. With him back in the lineup, Duke's offense had to change again and get used to playing with each other again. Since Bagley's return, this group has now played seven consecutive games together, and it appears it has found its rhythm again, at the right time. We'll see for sure on Friday against Syracuse, though.
@IloveDurham01: What are the key focal points based on the first game against Cuse? Wrinkles in offense to take advantage of? Trap Battle to keep their main scoring threat neutralized?
@jonmalexander: One of the things Duke struggled with in its last game against Syracuse was knocking down 3-pointers. Both teams combined to go 0-for-20 in 3s in the first half. Duke finished the game shooting 2-for-18 from behind the arc.
That can't happen if Duke wants to win. Duke will need to penetrate Syracuse's zone. Guards freshman Trevon Duval and senior Grayson Allen will need to drive the ball, hoping to attract extra defenders and leave open other players on the floor. Allen and Duval then will want to find those open players.
Allen said Syracuse's zone makes players pass the ball around the perimeter instead of penetrating, making it hard to get easy buckets.
"We'd like to make a few more (3-pointers) in this game," Allen said, "and move the ball more so we can get some good looks."
@CEJDaddyD: How much has Cuse improved as a team since they lost to Duke in the regular season? #AskJMA.
@jonmalexander: The Orange is 5-2 since that loss to Duke. Those wins include a regular-season victory over Clemson and upset wins over No. 6 seed TCU and No. 3 seed Michigan State in the NCAA tournament.
Defense really hasn't been a problem for Syracuse this year. It ranks No. 5 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. But offensive has been a struggle.
Here's what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said about Syracuse's improvements:
"The two things for them where they’ve really gotten better is (Marek) Dolezaj has become a force," Krzyzewski said. "He’s a double figure scorer in the last three weeks. He was a good player, but he’s a very good player now. (Oshea) Brissett has been their best player the past few games, he’s averaging 18 (points) and 10 (rebounds). They can really protect the basket when they have those four guys who are all very big and mobile and accustomed to playing with one another.
"On offense and defense, they become a tough out, especially when they can keep the number of possessions lower than a fast paced game."
Against Duke on Feb. 24, Brissett scored six points and had two rebounds. In his last five games, all post season play, he has averaged 16.6 points per game and 9.8 rebounds.
@AnothaDukeWin: What changed or finally clicked for Trevon ??
@jonmalexander: For Duval, it was all about confidence. Allen said he stayed on Duval and encouraged him through his slump during the month of January.
Duval talked about having more confidence in his shot and doing a better job of finding his teammates. He looks a lot more sure of himself and doesn't hesitate when shooting . In the first two NCAA tournament games, he is 5-for-9 from behind the arc.
He has also turned the ball over less. Duke plays well when Duval takes care of the basketball. It doesn't when he plays sloppy.
Duke is 19-1 when Duval turns the ball over two times or less and 9-6 when he turnovers the ball over more than two times.