No. 6 Duke gets No. 4 Arizona tonight for NIT Tip-Off title
Duke answered a big question late Wednesday night, reversing a trend of poor defensive efforts in a 74-64 win over Alabama.
Now comes a bigger challenge as the No. 6 Blue Devils face their second top-5 opponent of the young season.
The win over Alabama, noted by strong defense, lifted Duke into the NIT Season Tip-Off championship game against No. 4 Arizona today (6 p.m., ESPN) at Madison Square Garden.
Duke’s only other game against such a highly ranked opponent, then No. 5 Kansas, resulted in a 94-83 loss in the Champions Classic at Chicago’s United Center on Nov. 12.
Since then, Duke has reeled off five consecutive wins but looked shaky defensively at times.
That wasn’t the case against Alabama as Duke limited the Crimson Tide to 40.4 percent shooting – 14 percentage points below their season average – in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal win.
“Guys were (ticked) off the last couple of games with our defensive communication and our lack of effort,” Duke junior point guard Quinn Cook said. “We are a good defensive team no matter who says we are or not. We made a statement against a great Alabama team.”
Arizona (6-0) reached the final after a tougher-than-expected 66-62 win over Drexel. The Wildcats started the game off with cold shooting, hitting only 3 of their first 17 shots as Drexel jumped to a 27-8 lead.
But Arizona rallied, using a 25-4 run spanning the first and second halves, to erase the deficit. Nick Johnson scored 20 points and freshman Aaron Gordon had 10 points and 13 rebounds for the Wildcats.
“Arizona is older (than Alabama) and they are really big for us,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Over the years, we have always played really difficult schedules and this year is no different. I’m just glad we have an opportunity to play for a championship.”
While the task of stopping Alabama’s offense centered on work against accurate-shooting guards, Arizona has a stronger interior game. That’s an area of concern this year for Duke, which starts two 6-8 players (Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood) as its post players.
Arizona uses 7-0 sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski and 6-8 sophomore Brandon Ashley along with 6-9 freshman Aaron Gordon in the middle.
“They can post three guys from their starting lineup,” Krzyzewski said. “They post their front line. You know, that’s where we are not real big. That will be interesting how we try to get that going.”
Duke started 6-7 senior Josh Hairston along with Hood and Parker against Alabama. Krzyzewski moved Hairston into the starting lineup along with fellow senior captain Tyler Thornton in a move aimed at improving the team’s defensive communication and unity.
Cook joined Thornton in the starting backcourt.
The starters all played 20 minutes or more, with Cook, Thornton and Parker exceeding 30 minutes.
Jefferson, replaced in the starting lineup by Hairston, played just 10 minutes, grabbing four rebounds while not scoring.
Led by Parker’s eight rebounds, Duke held a 35-34 rebounding edge over Alabama. Tonight, Arizona will physically challenge Duke in the rebounding department like no team since Kansas. The Jayhawks held a 39-24 rebounding edge in their win over Duke.
Hood was slowed by foul trouble against Alabama, but that gave him a chance to watch Jefferson, Hairston and Parker work effectively in the lane.
“Our bigs did a great job (Wednesday),” Hood said. “People say our bigs aren’t good but they did a great job.”
Tonight’s game starts a period where Duke plays ranked teams in three of its next four games. Following Arizona, Duke returns home to play No. 22 Michigan on Tuesday (9:15 p.m., ESPN). After playing Gardner-Webb on Dec. 16 (7 p.m., ESPNU), Duke returns to Madison Square Garden to play No. 19 UCLA on Dec. 19 (7:30 p.m., ESPN).