South Region: Duke-Baylor preview

HOUSTON -- A quick look to the Elite Eight matchup in the South Region, where the last Final Four ticket will be awarded:

Key to the game: The battle on the boards just might decide who goes to the Final Four. Between Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas, the Plumlee brothers, Ekpe Udoh and Josh Lomers, there’s more than enough heft in the post to make things interesting.

In its first three games of this NCAA tournament, Duke is outrebounding its opponents by an average of 14.3 boards per game. That not only leads to easy putbacks, but it extends Duke’s possessions. Never was that more important than against slow-down Purdue, when the Blue Devils topped the Boilers by 21 on the backboards.

Baylor, meanwhile, is up eight boards per game on opponents and really took it to Omar Samhan and Saint Mary’s in the Sweet 16. The Bears topped the Gaels by 12 on the boards, but it was their 14 offensive rebounds that really made the difference.

“We can’t jump with them,’’ Thomas said. “We’re going to have to put bodies on them and let them know it’s going to be a game for 40 minutes.’’

Player to watch: Kyle Singler. He has been the difference maker for the Blue Devils, especially as Jon Scheyer has struggled in this NCAA tournament (just 6-for-26 from the arc). Singler is 13-for-22 outside of the paint, while his teammates are only 19-of-58. He’s also drained eight 3-pointers, and against Baylor’s zone, his ability or inability to get off a good shot will drastically affect Duke’s chances.

“I don’t know if he’s an X factor, but he’s probably an A, B, C, D, E, F, G factor,’’ Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Singler is one of the best players in the nation for a reason. He’s tremendous. He’s been playing great basketball and he’s a great player.’

Who has the edge: It’s open season on No. 1 seeds (perhaps West Virginia feels less unhappy about the perceived slight now?), and I think Duke might just fall into the heap as well. I expect a close game and a well-played matchup, but I’m not sure that the Blue Devils have what it takes to counter the athleticism of the Bears’ guards. If LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter can shoot it, I think Baylor makes its first Final Four since 1950.