NCAA Basketball Picks: Duke vs. Louisville

David Lawrence

Saturday, March 30, 2013 5:45 PM GMT

The Duke Blue Devils beat the Louisville Cardinals earlier this season in a Thanksgiving tournament. They'll have to beat Louisville again in order to go to the Final Four.


The Duke Blue Devils beat the Louisville Cardinals earlier this season in a Thanksgiving tournament. They'll have to beat Louisville again in order to go to the Final Four.

Duke can win because…

It is playing the best defense of any team left in the tournament – other than Syracuse. The Blue Devils have a reputation for being a finesse team that wins with its offense but they've won with defense in each of their last two NCAA tournament games. Duke limited Creighton, a team that averaged over 75 points per game, to just 50 in the round of 32 last Sunday. Then they were expected by many pundits NCAA basketball picks to be outworked in the paint by Michigan State's two imposing big men, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, in Friday night's Midwest Regional semifinal in Indianapolis, but Duke's tandem of Mason Plumlee, who plays the five position, and Ryan Kelly, who plays the four, outperformed and outmaneuvered the Nix-Payne combination.

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What really worked for Duke was timely double-teams. Kelly and other teammates helped out Plumlee on defense against Nix, making a timely intervention that crowded Nix and threw him off balance. Kelly, meanwhile, was able to stay in front of Payne and force the big man to beat him with jump shots, not six-foot hook shots that carried a much higher percentage. Duke's defense was so thoroughly good that Michigan State hit just three field goal attempts in the first 16 minutes of the second half. By that point in time, Duke had established a commanding advantage and was not seriously threatened in the final four minutes of play. If Duke plays this level of defense against Louisville on Sunday, it will be in very good shape.

One also has to realize that Louisville's team has come down with colds. UL coach Rick Pitino said that his players were hacking and coughing in the huddle during Friday night's win over Oregon. This is something to keep an eye on when this contest begins late Sunday afternoon.

Louisville can win because…

They has the best player in the NCAA tournament and because it will have its most important defensive player available in this game.

First, let's talk about the best player in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, Russ Smith of Louisville. Smith has scored 81 points in three games. He has 11 steals and has been making big plays precisely when the opponent tries to make a push against the Cardinals. Smith routinely answered Oregon's runs in what was a very competitive game on Friday night, getting to the rim and finishing so that he didn't have to worry about his perimeter jump shot. In previous rounds of the NCAA tournament, Duke's advantage has rested in the backcourt but with Smith and teammate Peyton Siva able to play such disruptive defense at the top of the key, Duke guard Seth Curry – who was brilliant in a 29-point performance against Michigan State on Friday night –  might not be able to bust loose as a shooter.

Louisville's most important defensive player is Gorgui Dieng, who missed the regular-season meeting between these teams. Dieng erases and alters shots in the middle of the paint, which is what enables Smith and Siva to be so aggressive on the perimeter. His presence is going to change the way Duke plays and it's going to put more pressure on Kelly, a "stretch four," to hit perimeter shots. If Kelly can't make any 17-footers, Duke will be in big trouble.

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Outlook & Prediction:

This figures to be a very close game, especially since Louisville's players are battling illnesses. The Cardinals might win, but if they do, it's going to be by the narrowest of margins. Duke will cover the number, win or lose.

NCAAB Pick: Duke +3.5 at Bovada