(The Sports Network)
The Duke Blue Devils continue their march towards back-to-back national championships as they take on the Michigan Wolverines in the third round of the NCAA Tournament's West Regional from Charlotte, North Carolina.
The top-seeded Blue Devils, who have a total of four national titles to their credit all under the direction of head coach Mike Krzyzewski, barely broke a sweat in their first game of the tournament on Friday when they easily dismissed the Hampton Pirates by a score of 87-45. The win not only drew the program one step closer to reaching the Sweet 16 for the 20th time in 26 years under Krzyzewski, it also means the legendary coach is now just one win away from 900 for his career and three shy of tying his mentor, Bob Knight, for the most coaching victories by a Division I men's coach.
Over on the other side, the eighth-seeded Wolverines should have had a tougher time with ninth-seeded Tennessee in the second round two days ago, but the Volunteers didn't put up much of a fight in a 75-45 thrashing that may indeed have sealed the fate of Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl. With the lopsided victory, Michigan moved to 36-16 in the tournament all-time, with its one national title coming in 1989.
The Blue Devils lead the all-time series with Michigan by a count of 19-8, although it was the Wolverines who posted an 81-73 upset victory in the most recent matchup back in December 2008 in Ann Arbor. That win for Michigan snapped the team's seven-game slide versus Duke. In 1992, the two teams met in the NCAA title game, with Duke posting a convincing 71-51 win in Minneapolis.
Needless to say, there's been a bit of controversy this week involving players from that 1992 matchup, with questionable comments being made by Michigan's Jalen Rose being responded to by Duke's Grant Hill, which should also make for interesting side notes for today's matchup.
The winner of this meeting will go up against the winner of the Arizona/Texas tussle in the round of 16.
Michigan trailed by six against the Vols in the first half, partly because the Wolverines shot just 3-of-15 from three-point range in the period, but the squad turned the corner in the second half and mowed down an uninspired Tennessee team with 64.3 percent accuracy from the floor and 6-of-11 beyond the arc. Perhaps most incredible in the 30-point win was the fact that Michigan became the first team in NCAA Tournament history to win a game without converting a single free throw (0-of-1). The Wolverines had four starters and five players overall score in double figures, the first time that's happened in more than a decade, as Zack Novak led the attack with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Matt Vogrich, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Stu Douglass all tallied 11 points and Jordan Morgan dropped in 10 in the triumph. Filling out his stat line was Darius Morris with eight points, nine assists and six boards. Morris is no stranger to doing whatever it takes to get this team into the win column as he leads the program in scoring with 15.0 ppg, is first with a staggering 229 assists over 34 appearances and also accounts for four rebounds per game as well. Hardaway (13.8 ppg) gives the Wolverines a presence out on the perimeter having made good on 75 triples, but he is one of just several players who can stretch defenses for a group that is averaging better than eight three-pointers per game.
Duke wasted little time in showing the Pirates the door on Friday, opening with a 7-0 run and then moving out to a 16-4 advantage less than five minutes into the first half before rolling to the crushing 42-point win. Obviously the Blue Devils played well as a group, but the best news to come out of the game was that Kyrie Irving was able to take part in the action after sitting out three months with a toe injury. Irving knocked down a pair of three-pointers and scored a team-best 14 points in 20 minutes off the bench, which means he was able to work his way into the flow of action without disrupting the chemistry created by the other Blue Devils during his absence. Fellow backup Andre Dawkins accounted for 13 points, followed by Mason Plumlee and Kyle Singler with 12 and 11 points, respectively. Miles Plumlee hit the glass for a game-high 13 rebounds and contributed eight points himself, while Nolan Smith chipped in a modest nine points and seven assists for the squad. Obviously Smith fell well below his scoring average of 20.9 ppg, but the ACC Player of the Year would gladly give up that aspect in order to march forward into the postseason. The same goes for Singler who also came in below his 17.0 ppg because this late in the season the players need to conserve their energy and allow backups to take as much pressure off of them as they can in order to be ready for the next round.
Not only did Irving make a significant contribution for the Blue Devils on Friday, but the entire bench played a huge role in getting Duke into the win column rather comfortably. The backups have more than proven their worth and that's going to help both today and moving forward.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Duke 82, Michigan 68