Basketball Preview: Mike Krzyzewski, Top-Ranked Blue Devils Come to Columbus to Play Ohio State in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

By Griffin Strom on November 30, 2021 at 8:35 am
Chris Holtmann, Mike Krzyzewski
Photos: Joseph Maiorana and Rob Kinnan – USA TODAY Sports

If Ohio State was looking to get right in its first return home after suffering two non-conference defeats in the past three games, this might not be the right matchup.

#1 Duke (7-0) Schottenstein Center 9:30 p.m. ESPN

The Buckeyes host the nation’s top-ranked team in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge Tuesday when Duke comes to town fresh off a win over then-No. 1 Gonzaga, and the Blue Devils are off to an undefeated start through the first seven games of Mike Krzyzewski’s final season at the helm of the program.

“He’s had an amazing and legendary career. In my mind he’s one of the very best coaches and leaders in any sport, regardless of sport,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said Monday of Krzyzewski. “You marvel at what he’s been able to accomplish in his career, the five national championships and the 12 Final Fours. I believe he’s had a No. 1 team as many as 24 times.”

Loaded with five-star talent and a couple of the nation’s top freshmen, Duke appears to have made a drastic turnaround from a 2020-21 season that saw the Blue Devils miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 26 years – besides, of course, the COVID-19-plagued 2019-20 campaign.

Duke already has multiple top-10 wins so far this season, starting the year with a 79-71 win over Kentucky before Friday’s Gonzaga win, and the Blue Devils also have the sixth-best adjusted efficiency margin in the country, per KenPom. Aside from a closer than expected 67-56 result against Campbell from the Big South in the third game of the season, Duke has rolled over unranked competition so far, and the Blue Devils take on another unranked opponent on Tuesday in the Buckeyes.

"This is probably the best team we're gonna play all season," E.J. Liddell said Monday. "So I'm looking forward to the competition and the competitiveness that we're gonna bring tomorrow night."

Ohio State has not played a home game in more than two weeks, and has spent that time testing itself against three opponents that have been ranked at one point or another this season. The Buckeyes suffered their first defeat of the year against Xavier in Cincinnati on Nov. 18, then split a pair of neutral-site games against No. 25 Seton Hall and No. 14 Florida at the Fort Myers Tip-Off last week.

That brutal non-conference stretch continues Tuesday as the Buckeyes host a Duke team that looks poised to make a deep postseason run come March.

Three Things to Watch For

Battle of nation’s best forwards

The game within the game Tuesday will no doubt be the head-to-head between perhaps the two best power forwards in all of college basketball. We’ll talk more about each of them below, but you’ll want to keep a close eye on where Duke’s Paolo Banchero and Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell are on the court at all times. They'll probably be hard to miss. 

Banchero, a versatile 6-foot-10 freshman projected to be among the top couple of picks in next year’s NBA Draft, has lived up to the hype and then some so far. Liddell has looked every bit of All-American caliber through six games. The Buckeyes will likely throw multiple looks at Banchero defensively, but expect Liddell to stick him for the majority of the game, barring early foul trouble.

Can Ohio State handle the Blue Devils' size?

Banchero presents one obvious issue for the Buckeyes, but he’s not the only big that could give Ohio State problems. The Blue Devils have a mobile 7-foot-1 sophomore in Mark Williams who is averaging 9.9 points and 6.4 rebounds in his own right. The 242-pound center plays nearly 20 minutes per game for Duke, shoots 65 percent from the field and has scored at least 13 points in each of the past four games. Against Gonzaga, Williams had a season-high 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting, and his growing confidence won’t be a good thing for the Buckeyes.

“They’ve got interior size. Mark Williams is a fantastic defensive player,” Holtmann said. “We recruited him, great kid too.”

Will history repeat itself?

It wasn’t all that long ago that Ohio State found itself unranked in a home matchup with the nation’s top team in a regular season meeting, and on that occasion four seasons ago, Holtmann and company managed to prevail. On Jan. 7, 2018, the Buckeyes played host to Tom Izzo’s No. 1 Michigan State Spartans in Columbus, and Ohio State used a fast start in the first half to eventually pull away from Michigan State for a 16-point win. 

Keita Bates-Diop had 32 points, a career-high at the time, to lead the Buckeyes to victory, and with the start that Liddell is on this year, his season has already paralleled Bates-Diop’s stellar 2017-18 campaign.

Three Important Buckeyes

E.J. Liddell

One thing we know for sure about the Buckeyes through the first six games is that Liddell is going to put up gaudy numbers this season, and that will likely be the case whether Ohio State wins or loses. The junior forward is averaging 22.5 points per game on 56 percent shooting, nearly 10 percent better than he shot a year ago, and he’s been a defensive difference maker as well with an average of 3.8 blocks per game. Needless to say, the Buckeyes are going to need another big effort from their star forward if they hope to be in Tuesday's game until the end.

Kyle Young

Young has quietly come alive as an offensive contributor for the Buckeyes as of late. The fifth-year senior forward is the only Buckeye other than Liddell who has scored double-digit points in each of the past three games. With 11 points against Florida, Young was Ohio State’s second-leading scorer despite fouling out with nine minutes still to play, and his absence was felt on the floor for the Buckeyes. But if Young stays out of foul trouble, his role could continue to increase as he get his legs under him after missing time in the preseason. His veteran presence could be vital in a spotlight matchup with Duke.

Malaki Branham

The true freshman shooting guard has started each of the past five games for the Buckeyes, but Branham’s offensive contributions have dwindled after a solid start to the year. Branham scored just two points in Ohio State’s win over Seton Hall last week and had only four in Wednesday’s last-second loss to Florida. Branham went 2-for-8 in those two games and is shooting just 33 percent from the floor so far this season. Fans certainly can’t expect too much from Branham early in his first season, and neither can the Buckeyes, but a scoring boost from a starting wing wouldn’t hurt Ohio State’s cause.

Three Important Blue Devils

Player Position Height Weight Stats
JEREMY ROACH G 6-2 172 9 PPG, 3.3 APG
TREVOR KEELS G 6-5 221 12.3 PPG, 3.7 APG
WENDELL MOORE F 6-5 213 17.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG
PAOLO BANCHERO F 6-10 250 18.3 PPG, 7.6 RPG
MARK WILLIAMS C 7-1 242 9.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG

Paolo Banchero

A five-star freshman who was the nation’s second-rated recruit out of high school, Banchero headlines another stacked Blue Devil roster in 2021-22. Duke’s leading scorer and rebounder with averages of 18.3 points and 7.6 boards a game, Banchero is shooting 53.4 percent from the field and even attempts 3.4 3-pointers per game. The potential top NBA Draft pick opened the season with a 22-point explosion in a win against Kentucky, put up 28 on Citadel last week and scored 20 points before halftime against then-No. 1 Gonzaga on Friday. Needless to say, Banchero poses a serious threat to the Buckeyes with his size and versatility.

“I know Paolo’s size is impressive and versatility, I think it’s even more impressive, we’ve heard, in person,” Holtmann said.

Wendell Moore

Third-year Blue Devil wing Wendell Moore is Duke’s second-leading scorer behind Banchero, and the former No. 29 overall recruit has almost doubled his 2020-21 scoring average as a full-time starter for the first time this season. Moore’s averaging 17.9 points per game, leads the team with 5.7 assists per game and also pulls down the third-most rebounds on the team with 6.3. The 6-foot-5, 213-pound forward does it all for the Blue Devils, and he scored 16 of his 20 points against Gonzaga in the second half to power Duke to a win over the top-ranked team in the nation.

Trevor Keels

Banchero isn’t the only first-year Blue Devil with five-star bona fides. Trevor Keels was the 23rd-ranked prospect in the class of 2021, and the 6-foot-5, 221-pound guard is already making a major impact for Duke. Keels is averaging 12.3 points per game (third-best on the team), 3.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds and leads Duke with 2.1 steals per game. Keels is logging an average of 31.1 minutes per game as a freshman, and scored 25 points in the season opener against Kentucky in his collegiate debut.

How It Plays Out

Line: Duke -3.5, O/U 148.5

Ohio State is only a 3.5-point underdog coming into this one, and the Buckeyes have proven since the end of last season that they can turn just about any game – regardless of the caliber of opponent – into a down-to-the-wire affair. Still, I’m just not sure how Ohio State will handle Duke’s combination of size and talent unless the Blue Devils have a letdown performance on the heels of their big win over Gonzaga. I like Duke by double digits, although I wouldn’t put it past the Buckeyes to keep this one close until the very end.

Prediction: Duke 81, Ohio State 69

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