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Cal Basketball

What to Watch: Cal vs Duke

November 21, 2019

After four games against teams ranked outside of the KenPom top-100, things get real in a hurry for the Bears. Today kicks off the semi-finals of the 2K Empire Classic in Madison Square Garden. And Cal’s first matchup will be at 6 p.m. (PT) against the Duke Blue Devils. Both teams come into today’s game with 4-0 records.

Duke Blue Devils

Last season: 32-6 (14-4), Kenpom ranking: 4

KenPom 2020 Projection (through four games): 25-5 (15-5), No. 4

Torvik 2020 Projection (through four games): 23-7 (14-6), No. 9

Here are some keys to tonight’s game.

1) Turnovers

The Bears are coming off a 22-turnover performance against Prairie View A&M. Duke opponents are currently averaging about 21 turnovers a game. The Blue Devils are currently 15th in the country on forcing turnovers at a TO% of 27.0. Cal will need every clean offensive possession they can get to stay in the game and it would really help to clean up the mental errors that were happening on Monday against the Panthers. Of the 22 turnovers committed by the Bears only eight were steals. Cal is currently ranked 349th (out of 353 teams) in non-steal TO%, according to KenPom.

The good news is Cal ranks 21st in steal% at just 5.8%. So while Cal has been bad at coughing up the ball on its own accord this year, it’s had a strong ability to not allow teams to steal the ball. Duke, on the other hand, is stealing the ball at a clip of 15.1%, which is 13th in the nation. So which team is going to force its own will?

2) Will a third Bear please stand up?

On Monday, it was basically Matt Bradley and Grant Anticevich contributing to the offense and no one else. The result was a point total that was 25 less than its previous season-low. Mark Fox said the Bears relied too much on shots dropping after seeing the fall at such a high clip the first three games. Duke’s defense is stout — second in the country with an 82.9 adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom. 

To stay in this game, the Bears have to get some positive contributions from someone else. The Blue Devils have done their scout and know to lockdown Bradley and Anticevich. Both have looked good from the field and both will get their shots, but this would certainly be a good time for a break-out game from grad transfer Kareem South.

3) Can the shots keep falling?

Cal has been shooting at a ridiculous field goal percentage this year. Before Monday’s game, it was a top-10 team in the country in effective FG%. The Bears slid a bit to 18th after Monday, but are still shooting at an effective FG% of 58.8%. Cal will need to shoot near that rate to hang in tonight’s game. One path to an upset in college hoops is turning the other team over and knocking down threes. Those are two things the Bears can do (the Bears are shooting 45.5% from three, which is fifth in the nation). Duke isn’t a strong three-point shooting team (30.2% on the year), so Cal could really work this to its advantage.

4) Who guards Tre Jones?

Joel Brown has done a good job recently guarding opponents’ lead guards. Tre Jones is an entirely different level of guard. He’s currently averaging 17 points and 5.8 assists per game. Cal has had troubles with guards with quick first steps — and Jones is quick.

5) What happens in the frontcourt?

Cal’s frontcourt play so far has not been particularly strong. And to be sure, Cal will be facing its toughest frontcourt so far this season. At 6-10 and 270 pounds, Vernon Carey is a load and averaging 14.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. I’m not sure who Fox puts on Carey to slow him down. Thiemann has looked decent at times on offense, but his defense and rebounding haven’t been super strong so far.

And then you have Matthew Hurt, who at 6-9 and 214-pounds is the Blue Devils’ top three-point shooter right now. Both Hurt and Carey have 10 offensive rebounds on the year and both have the ability to go off tonight against Cal’s less-proven frontcourt. 

This is a tall task for the young Bears. But it’s also a good opportunity to play a premier program on a premier stage in Madison Square Garden. And Duke hasn’t looked overly dominant so far this year. After a two-point season-opening win against Kansas, the Blue Devils whipped a couple programs they should beat by a lot and then struggled to an 11-point win against a pretty bad Georgia State team. Hopefully, the Bears take this as an opportunity to grow as a team and program regardless of the outcome. 

KenPom Projection: 77-59, Duke (95% win chance)

Torvik Projection: 76-63, Duke (89% win chance) 

Click here for our full Duke preview from October. Or read the highlights below.

Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

There’s not much to say about Coach K that the casual college hoops fan doesn’t already know. He’s one of the most successful and prolific coaches in the history of the sport. Since 1980, Krzyzewski has led the Blue Devils to 12 final fours, 12 regular-season conference titles, and 15 conference tournament titles. At five national championships, only John Wooden has won more. While Coach K has won the Naismith College Coach of the Year three times, he has not received the award in the past two decades.

While Krzyzewski-coached teams definitely play solid defense, it’s the offense that is particularly impressive. Over the 23 years KenPom has been keeping data, Duke has only landed outside of the top-ten in offense four times. Three of those times, the Blue Devils ranked 13th. In 2007, which was one of Duke’s worst teams in modern history, the Blue Devils ranked 44th in offense (but ranked sixth in defense).

Duke does pretty much everything very well on offense, but Krzyzewski has really emphasized high-percentage shots and crashing the offensive boards in recent years. 

On defense, Duke’s last two teams have finished in KenPom’s top-ten defense ratings. Similar to the offense, the Blue Devils have elevated their defense over the past two seasons by clogging the lanes and last season ranked in the top-ten in block percentages, opponent field goal percentage, and free-throw rates.

Key Returners:

Tre Jones, 6-2, SO., 9.4 pts, 5.3 asts, 3.8 rbds, 1.9 stls

Alex O’Connell, 6-6, JR., 4.4 pts, 1.9 rbds

Jack White, 6-7, SR., 4.7 pts, 4.1 rbds

In recent years at Duke, the hype has been around the blue-chip recruits coming in rather than the nucleus of players already in Durham (and for good reason). But teams rarely find success on rotating platoons of newbies in and off the court compared to teams that have a few veteran players on the team (see Kentucky). 

Of Duke’s returning players, Tre Jones is the most exciting. The top-15 blue-chip point guard decided to forgo the NBA for one more year and stay in North Carolina. Many pundits have already placed the potential of Duke’s season on the ability of Jones to take another step forward this season. Specifically, it’d help if Jones improved his three-point shooting, where he averaged around 30% last season.

The other two returners that could impact this season’s roster and performance for Duke are Alex O’Connell and Jack White. Both play on the perimeter and while O’Connell was a typical top-70 Duke recruit, White was in the 200s, but will be a senior this year. Both players will be expected to fill in when the highly-touted incoming class need relief.

Key Incoming Players:

Vernon Carey, 6-10, FR., 247 Sports rank: 6

Matthew Hurt, 6-9, FR., 247 Sports rank: 12

Wendell Moore, 6-5, FR., 247 Sports rank: 29

Duke is bringing in a four-man class, which ranks third in the nation, according to 247 Sports. Highlight the class is Vernon Carey, out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It’s tough to find a skilled true center who can make an impact early on in his college career, but that’s exactly what is expected of Carey and very likely what he’ll live up to. Krzyzewski also scored a top-10 or 15 (depending on the ranking source) big man in Matthew Hurt. On the wing, the Blue Devils are bringing in two four-star recruits in Wendell Moore and Cassius Stanley.

Key Losses:

Zion Williamson, 6-7, FR., 22.6 pts, 8.9 rbds, 2.1 asts, 2.1 stls

RJ Barrett, 6-7, FR., 22.6 pts, 7.6 rbds, 4.3 asts

Cam Reddish, 6-8, FR., 13.5 pts, 3.7 rbds

The three focal points of Duke’s insane 2018 class departed for the NBA. Williamson, Barrett, and Reddish were all top-five recruits and obviously leave big holes for Duke to fill this season. There’s not much more to say about the Blue Devils’ prolific class.

This is a game no one expects Cal to win. While this year’s Duke team won’t be as hyped as previous recent Duke teams, it’s still Duke and Coach K will have his team ready to go. Get through this game, learn some lessons, and then look to the two-game tournaments second game where the Bears will either get Georgetown or Texas — both of which are more manageable games.

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What to Watch: Cal vs Duke

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