Game of the Night: Tulsa at No. 5 Duke (7:00 PM, ESPN2)
Despite their being just two weeks left in the regular season in most conferences – and nearly every league game meaning something to at least one of the teams – there is not much evidence of at-large jockeying on Thursday. Sure, there are plenty of key games in the mid-major conferences, with Charleston facing Wofford in a Southern Conference showdown; Campbell heading to Jacksonville in an Atlantic Sun battle; and Morehead State facing off with Murray State in the Ohio Valley. Also, 14-12 South Carolina getting obliterated at Kentucky doesn’t do it for me. Therefore, the best game of the night is at-large hopeful Tulsa heading to Durham to face Duke in a non-conference battle.
Tulsa came into the season as the Conference-USA favorite, but the Golden Hurricane have been a disappointment, currently sitting at fifth in the league. They have lost five of their last eight, and have essentially cost themselves an at-large shot. A win here would get them back in the mix, though. Tulsa’s best win this season came against Oklahoma State back in early December. On the other side, Duke is battling for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Devils have won six in a row, including three road games, and sit atop the ACC at 11-2. They are No. 1 at kenpom.com, No. 2 in the RPI and own 14 top-100 wins.
Despite its recent struggles, Tulsa still has talent on its roster and the personnel to throw a scare into Duke. Ben Uzoh and Jerome Jordan form one of the better inside-outside combos outside of the BCS conferences. Uzoh is a playmaker at guard who can get into the lane to create shots for himself and teammates, and also shoot the three. Jordan is a dominant big man who can take over a game at both ends. Guard Justin Hurtt is a gunner, plain and simple, shooting nearly six three-pointers per game. He can get hot from deep, though. Joe Richard and Bishop Wheatley start at forward, with both providing scoring and rebounding. Sixth man Steven Idlet is an efficient rebounder who can also sore around the basket. Donte Medder is a good shooter off the bench.
Duke has been near the top of the rankings all season, and for good reason. The Blue Devils have one of the best trios in the country in guards Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler. Smith has been filling it up throughout the year, and is the Blue Devils’ best three-point shooter by percentage. Scheyer has been playing at a high level all season, and his performance this year at the point guard position has lifted Duke to where it is right now. He can still score, but his playmaking ability has been impressive. Singler is a match-up nightmare, given his ability to score with his back to the basket or when facing up and driving. Outside of those three, no one has been a consistent scorer, although big man Brian Zoubek has stepped up lately. Lance Thomas, Mason and Miles Plumlee, and Ryan Kelly all see minutes up front as well. Andre Dawkins comes off the bench in the backcourt to shoot from deep.
Before the season, this game likely would have been predicted to be a fairly close match-up. However, that certainly won’t be the case Thursday night. Tulsa has struggled mightily lately, and the Golden Hurricane looked like they packed it in for the season in their game Saturday against UTEP. If they play to their potential, they might be able to keep it close against Duke for a little while. After all, Tulsa does have solid perimeter athletes and a dominant big man in Jordan. I expect Tulsa to continue its tailspin, though. Duke will roll on the back of Singler.
Prediction: Duke 81, Tulsa 66