Blue bloods Duke, Kansas face off with Final Four berth at stake
OMAHA, Neb. - In a Tournament defined by unpredictability, there finally will be a regional final that makes sense.
Top-seeded Kansas and No. 2 Duke will square off in the Midwest Regional final Sunday for the last spot in the Final Four - and the stakes are huge even by Elite Eight standards.
Mike Krzyzewski is looking to break UCLA legend John Wooden’s record of 12 Final Four appearances.
Kansas coach Bill Self, who recently joined Krzyzewski and Wooden in the Naismith Hall of Fame, is hoping to snap a two-year losing streak in regional finals and a 2-7 personal record in Elite Eights.
After scores of upsets produced some rather strange matchups elsewhere, it will be “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk” vs. Coach K and the Blue Devils in a classic finale.
“It’s great when you have two programs of this nature, this status in the history of our game play for a Final Four berth. I think it’s great for the sport,” Krzyzewski said.
Blue Devils favored
As for the latest chapter in the Kansas-Duke series, the top-seeded Jayhawks (30-7) are more like a plucky underdog - at least by their high standards - while the No. 2-seeded Blue Devils (29-7) and their cadre of ridiculously talented freshmen appear to be rounding into title-contending form. Duke is a betting favorite in the game even though it is the lower seed.
“It’ll be a tough game. But it’s going to be a fun game,” Self said. “We know we’ve got our hands full. But we like to think they have their hands full, too.”
Kansas has clawed is way into a third consecutive regional final as a No. 1 behind teamwork and a toughness that wasn’t always there in the winter.
The Jayhawks’ last two victories - over Seton Hall and Clemson - were each by just four points, but Kansas has won six consecutive postseason games after tearing through the Big 12 tournament.
Key to the Jayhawks’ postseason success has been the play of sophomore guard Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points in the 80-76 victory over the Tigers. That followed a 28-point performance against the Pirates in the second round. Newman is Kansas’ leading scorer in the Tournament with 18.3 points per game.
All this has happened after he averaged 24 points and made 15 3-pointers in the Jayhawks’ three-game Big 12 tournament title run - an effort that earned him most outstanding player.
Allen vs. Graham
Duke cruised through to the Sweet 16 but then had to survive a furious challenge from ACC rival Syracuse and its bewildering 2-3 zone Friday night. The young Blue Devils have flourished under the leadership of senior captain Grayson Allen, who is 12-2 in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re both here for a reason. It’ll be a good one,” Duke’s Marvin Bagley III said.
And for all the talk about the young stars on the two teams, the two squads are run by star senior guards coming off a so-so game.
Devonte’ Graham, the Big 12 Player of the Year for Kansas, shot just 4-of-12 from the field in the victory over Clemson, and Allen was just 3-of-14 on 3s in the 69-65 win over Syracuse. But Krzyzewski and Self expect their veteran stars to bounce back.
“He’s the best intangibles guy we’ve ever had here,” Self said of Graham.
Another intriguing matchup pits Bagley against Jayhawks sophomore big man Udoka Azubuike.
Azubuike is fully healthy after a strained knee ligament kept him out of the Big 12 tournament, and he will need to be because Bagley promises to be a handful. Bagley had 22 points and seven rebounds against Syracuse. Azubuike played an NCAA Tournament-high 25 minutes against the Tigers, scoring 14 points with 11 rebounds.