Photo Credit: TheDevilsDen
Anyone who knows me knows how much I f*****g hate Duke basketball so this is a painful comparison to make, but I see a lot of similarities between this year’s Duke team and last year’s Villanova team. Most people would likely think of these two teams as incredibly different based on the vast differences in age and experience the teams have, but there are some major similarities that you may not have realized. It seems odd that a loss would make me think of this comparison, but after seeing Duke’s loss at home to unranked Syracuse the other night, it hit me how similar this year’s Blue Devil team is to last year’s national champions.
Remember early February last year when Villanova lost two games in a three-game span (v.s. St. John’s and @ Providence) and everyone started saying how overrated they were? Those “takes” certainly did not age well and were founded on a lack of understanding for the context of those games. In the game at home against St. John’s on February 7th, 2018, the Wildcats played without two of their six studs in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. One week later in a loss on the road against Providence, they were without Phil Booth again. Most of the people who knocked Villanova for this poor stretch failed to realize that they were without a couple of their best players and how large of a role these injuries played in those losses. The 36-4 Wildcats only lost two games all season with a fully healthy team, and they showed that when they were all on the floor they not only were the best team in the country but arguably the best team of all time.
Duke’s loss to unranked Syracuse at home on Monday night- which came at a very similar time of the season to Nova’s bad stretch in 2018- has been nothing short of déjà vu for me. After the loss, they were immediately criticized for being overrated and overhyped. However, Duke played the entire game without one of their stud freshmen in Cam Reddish (illness) and played 39 minutes of the 45-minute game without their freshman point guard Tre Jones (shoulder). When healthy, Duke is probably the best team in the country right now (though they could be surpassed by Gonzaga with Killian Tillie playing again), and they were unfortunate to get bit by the injury bug the other night. I wouldn’t be shocked if Duke raises another banner this season and we look back on this loss as showing nothing about the quality of the team but rather just a random misfortune in their season.
The actual makeup of the rosters of these two teams is also very similar. The 2017-18 Villanova team was one of the best teams I’ve ever seen in college basketball. They had six guys who could put up 20+ points on any given night, had the college basketball player of the year in Jalen Brunson, and had four different guys go in the 2018 NBA draft (all of who went in the top 33 picks). Duke has four guys who can put up 20+ points on any given night, they have the best duo in the country in R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson (either one could win player of the year), and will likely have four guys taken in the 2019 NBA draft (three of them likely going in the top five picks).
A team having four or more different guys who can put up 20+ any night is something that is very important to me when I select my March Madness champion. The fact that last year Villanova had six of these guys was why it was a no-brainer for me to pick them to win it all. Duke has four of these guys this season (although Tre Jones hasn’t scored 20 yet I certainly believe he can and will) so they check this box. Giving this kind of talent and scoring depth to Coach K is dangerous, and I am not proud to say that they would currently be my pick to win it all if the tournament started today.