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Duke, Vernon Carey Jr., dominate the Bears in New York

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One team had a future lottery pick, one team didn’t. Analysis!

NCAA Basketball: California at Duke Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Recruiting is an inexact science. Evaluation mistakes happen.

For example, Vernon Carey Jr. was only the #6 overall prospect in the 2019 247 composite rankings. Personally, I think he’s proven the haters wrong and shown that he’s at least top three. Remember this the next time somebody tells you that recruiting rankings are the gospel truth.

The best of Duke’s four top 50 recruits shined brightly in MSG, scoring an easy 31 points on 18 shots to go along with 12 rebounds and 4 blocks. He dunked the ball, he nailed elbow jumpers, he sank an NBA 3, and he completely dominated on the glass and with his post defense. He didn’t win the game single-handedly, and Duke still wins this game without him. Still, his play might well have been the difference between Cal hanging around with a shot at making things interesting, and the 35 point blowout that actually happened.

It’s sometimes hard to measure ‘athleticism’ statistically. Did one team shoot a high field goal percentage because they possessed the athleticism to get past defenders and drive to the basket, or because they execute their sets flawlessly and pass/shoot well?

But here’s a stark illustration: Duke attempted 13 more shots from the field and 17 more free throws than Cal. The Blue Devils were able to earn those big margins because Duke had the athleticism to dominate the glass, had the athleticism to harry our ball handlers into a bunch of turnovers, and had the athleticism to get our defenders out of position to draw a ton of fouls. Duke didn’t NEED to shoot the ball better than Cal to win the game. They did (by a smallish margin), which contributed to the overall blowout, but they earned so many more shots that they couldn’t missed every single three they attempted and still won.

To Cal’s credit, the Bears came out in a tight 2-3 zone with the intention of making it hard for Duke to operate inside, and Duke got off to a slow start offensively because they came out cold from three. The game was still tied 8-8 after nine minutes had elapsed, and for the briefest time you might have started to dream that Cal could ugly up the game enough to keep things competitive.

But the reality is that Cal was just never going to be able to score against Duke’s defense, and that it was only a matter of time before Duke figured out the zone and/or started sinking threes. They did both in short order, going on an extended 32-13 run into halftime that ended any dreams of challenging the #1 ranked team in the country.

Various notes:

  • Duke’s perimeter pressure was suffocating, and when you have a player like Carey protecting the rim behind you there’s not much risk to the strategy. Cal only got off ten 3 point attempts, their fewest of the season.
  • That same pressure seemed to disrupt whatever offensive gameplan Cal brought into the game - I’m pretty sure they wanted Matt Bradley to take more than 6 shots, for example. Cal ended up going to the block a lot, possibly because that was one of the few passes that was available within the offense. As a result, Lars Thiemann and Andre Kelly got 15 total attempts. But considering that the were being guarded by Carey, you have to question the strategy. They combined for just 4 made shots on those 15 attempts, while Carey had 4 blocks.
  • Falling behind big meant that some players were able to get a little run who haven’t seen much court time. For the most part nobody really stood out, but D.J. Thorpe had an active 12 minutes with a couple of blocks and a 4-4 performance from the field.

I’m honestly not sure what, if anything, you can take away from this game that you didn’t already know. Cal isn’t on Duke’s level, and everything that happened on the court matched that obvious truth.

Cal’s next game at MSG, against Texas, will be significantly more interesting. The Longhorns are probably a team that will spend most of the season near the NCAA tournament bubble, so they will be clear favorites. But they’re not so good that Cal can’t compete with them on the right night with the right effort.

Both teams are coming off of disappointing efforts in game 1 and will have to pick themselves up quickly. Game 2 tips at 2:00 PT on either ESPN2 or ESPNU.