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Note: For the first half of this scouting report on the fascinating matchup between Kentucky and Michigan State, click here.
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 5 Kansas, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
A whole new world. And you thought scouting Kentucky-Michigan State was hard.
Sure, the Wildcats are freshmen in short tape supply. But at least they have two games in the books already, twice as many as either Kansas or Duke. And Michigan State is a known quantity. With the Spartans involved, the mental template for how a game might progress is at least within reach; you don't need scattered film to make an educated guess.
Kansas and Duke offer little such luxury.
This is a most unusual state of affairs. Kansas coach Bill Self (for the past decade) and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (for the past 246 years) have sustained their respective successes through the classic program-building of yore. Both coaches have taken on one-and-done talents, sure, but they've always leaned on the proverbial "program guys" -- juniors and seniors with reliable, if less rapturous, roles.
It would be silly to overstate the case here, of course; Duke has Quinn Cook (a junior), Rasheed Sulaimon (a heavily used sophomore), Andre Dawkins (a prodigal junior) and even reserve guard Tyler Thornton (a program-guy's-guy senior). Kansas has former Memphis forward Tarik Black (a senior, albeit a newcomer), point guard Naadir Tharpe (a junior) and forward Perry Ellis (a heavily used sophomore). There are familiar faces here. But there are more of the unfamiliar. More to the point, the newcomers are the most crucial pieces on both sides, even this early in the season.
|Duke freshman Jabari Parker might be the best pure scorer in the country.|
One game is the smallest of sample sizes, to be sure, but that only adds to the difficulty -- and drives home that it's so hard to know what to expect when these two teams take the floor Thursday.
Jabari Parker vs. Andrew Wiggins. Or is it? Speaking of newcomers, it would be silly to ignore the individual matchup this game offers us: The No. 1 player in the loaded 2013 class versus the No. 2; the new Next LeBron James against the player crowned as such on the cover of Sports Illustrated a year ago; Jabari Parker versus Andrew Wiggins, with all eyes on both.
It's entirely possible we'll look back at this game as the start of a personal rivalry akin to that shared by James and Carmelo Anthony early in their NBA careers, if not exactly Bird versus Magic. (Let's not go crazy.) But the immediate upshot is far more concrete: Parker might be the best pure scorer in the country, and Wiggins -- in addition to being good at pretty much everything a basketball player can be good at -- might be the best on-ball defender in same.
At the very least, Wiggins will need to be Tuesday night. If nothing else -- and that's a big "if," because Wiggins can dominate on both ends of the floor -- he'll have to do that. For as small as that sample size is, we have every reason to believe he can. (Just ask Julius Randle.)
The benefit of identity. Wiggins will have to key on Parker not thanks to narrative, or next June's draft, but because Kansas's best shot of beating Duke Tuesday night hinges on it.
Duke, even one game in, has one clear advantage over Kansas: identity. That's a fuzzy term to throw around in a scouting report, I realize, but it's true. The Blue Devils' season opener against Davidson showcased exactly what everyone thought (hoped?) Duke's true calling might be before the season began -- that Coach K would not only field a good team, but a thrilling one; that his group would not only pour in points, but would do so with verve. And that's what exactly what it did in its debut last week, scoring an utterly mental 111 points in 70 possessions in high style. The prophecy was fulfilled. Basketball aesthetes everywhere rejoiced.
This identity is inextricably tied to Parker's versatility. At 6-foot-8, Parker is as comfortable on the perimeter as in the low block; one would seek to avoid the Anthony comparisons were they not so obvious, or so apt. Hood's presence means double trouble in this regard, combining with Parker and Duke's lineup of floor-spreading guards to create a secondary-breaking nightmare.
Kansas, on the other hand, is still very much in search of the I-word. The Jayhawks weren't nearly as impressive in their 80-63 win (in 70 possessions) over Louisiana Monroe on Friday. They were far more disjointed on both ends of the floor. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Self typically has years to concoct the balance of his lineup, to drill his players in the nuances of his hi-low offense and tight man-to-man defense. But with so many young players, Self finds himself in the position -- at least for the moment, and maybe for a month or more -- of hoping the individual talents of Wiggins, Embiid, Selden, Black and the rest are enough to overcome early structural shortcomings.
To do that Tuesday night, Wiggins has to dominate. He has to exert his will offensively, yes, but just as important is his ability to stop Parker at the point of attack, to slow Duke to a more manageable speed, to get the Blue Devils out of their deadly open floor rhythm.
That's a lot to ask of a kid playing in his second career game, but everything -- from the first chapter of the Wiggins-Parker saga to the simple matter of getting out of Chicago with a win -- depends on it.