After what feels like an almost interminable break, March Madness is back. After a three-day hiatus, the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament kicks off on Thursday evening. Fans will be treated to some good ones, too.
Top-seeded Gonzaga kicks off the evening against the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Michigan Wolverines will attempt to go from the bubble to the Elite Eight against the Villanova Wildcats, while the Arizona Wildcats find themselves on upset alert in the late window against a hard-charging Houston Cougars squad.
But a showdown between the Duke Blue Devils and Texas Tech Red Raiders could highlight the night.
Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils are hoping to continue their pursuit of a sixth national championship in Coach K’s final season. Naturally, the Red Raiders and their stingy defense hope to spoil the party and make a run of their own.
Here are three things to watch for in this Sweet 16 matchup between Duke and Texas Tech.
1. AJ Griffin’s health
Duke freshman AJ Griffin garnered more and more attention as the 2021-22 NCAA season rolled along as one of the top prospects in the 2022 NBA Draft class. His health is a significant component of this contest.
Griffin suffered a sprained ankle during the Blue Devils’ second-round win over the Michigan State Spartans. However, Krzyzewski said during Wednesday’s media scrum (h/t the Duke Chronicle) that Griffin will play after practicing with minor soreness.
Duke certainly needs a healthy version of Griffin in the Sweet 16.
The White Plains native is one of the best shooters in the country. Griffin has knocked down 45.5% of his three-pointers on 4.0 attempts per contest. He drills catch-and-shoot looks but can also create separation off the dribble and send opponents flying when they try to close out.
Indeed, Griffin provides the Blue Devils with far more than just shooting. He comes off pindown screens and attacks the basket off the dribble, finishing with floaters and knowing when to dump the ball off to bigs like Mark Williams and Theo John.
While Griffin doesn’t necessarily have the most dynamic athleticism off the dribble, he exploits defenders overcrowding his jumper for blow-bys to the bucket. He consistently generates offense and provides much-needed floor spacing for ball-handlers like Wendell Moore Jr., Jeremy Roach, and Paolo Banchero to operate.
If Griffin feels close to 100%, the Blue Devils have an excellent chance to advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. But if he shows signs of playing hurt, the Red Raiders will make things tough on Duke with their pressure.
2. Battle of the bigs: Mark Williams vs. Bryson Williams
Blue Devils center Mark Williams is one of the best interior defenders in basketball and the 2021-22 ACC Defensive Player of the Year. But Texas Tech forward Bryson Williams might negate Duke’s biggest defensive weapon.
The Red Raiders forward not only leads Texas Tech in scoring (13.9 PPG), but also three-point shooting. Williams has made nearly 41% of his triples on 2.9 attempts per contest. He went 4-of-5 from deep in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before going 0-of-4 from beyond the arc in the second round.
Bryson Williams can stretch the floor in pick-and-roll and pull Mark Williams out of the paint because of his shooting ability. That makes things challenging for Duke.
The Blue Devils can occasionally struggle to contain dribble drives and keep opponents out of the lane. That partially explains why Williams is averaging a whopping 2.9 blocks. Duke requires so much from him as a weak-side help defender. He’s swatted five attempts in each of the team’s first two games.
Williams vs. Williams could make for as exciting a chess match as any we have seen during this NCAA Tournament.
Bryson’s shooting ability might force the Blue Devils to adjust and be more aggressive at the point of attack in pick-and-roll. He also has plenty of strength and craftiness in the low post. However, Mark has strong side-to-side agility and can recover nicely on the defensive end. Plus, as a 7-footer, he has the height advantage over the 6-foot-8 Bryson and could be an offensive threat in the post and on lobs.
3. Does Texas Tech have enough shot-making? And can Duke defend?
Texas Tech doesn’t exactly have perimeter-oriented guys who can create for themselves and get a bucket when necessary. Duke has those guys in Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, and Wendell Moore Jr. Even Jeremy Roach repeatedly got inside against Michigan State.
That said, the Red Raiders defend with the best of them, ranking eighth in defensive scoring average and second in the NCAA in defensive rating. The Blue Devils have struggled on that end, ranking 120th in defensive rating.
Duke likes to play fast and run when possible. But Texas Tech will likely try to slow things down and make the Blue Devils work in the half court. Fortunately for Duke, the Red Raiders are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country, so look for Coach K to employ a lot of drop coverage in an effort to cut off straight-line drives.
If Texas Tech can find an offensive option to create late in the shot clock, it’ll make things that much easier. But they’ll have to work overtime to contain Duke’s explosive scoring weapons.
In any event, the Blue Devils and Red Raiders are sure to provide the drama in this thrilling Sweet 16 matchup.
Stats courtesy of Sports Reference.