Duke travels to Las Vegas on Black Friday to face its biggest challenge of this college basketball season. The Blue Devils will face No. 1 ranked Gonzaga.
The Zags finished one game shy of an undefeated national championship season last year and will be looking to finish the job this time around. Gonzaga may have a more talented roster this year than last year’s 31-1 squad.
Gonzaga lost a pair of All-Americans in Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert, as well as starter Joel Ayayi, but coach Mark Few added one of the top incoming classes in the nation to a strong core of returning players.
The Zags added three five-star freshmen and a grad transfer. The gem of the class is 7-footer Chet Holmgren, who was the top recruit in the nation. Able to handle the ball like a guard, he’s been labeled a “unicorn” by NBA scouts who expect him to go near the top of next year’s draft.
He hasn’t sprouted a horn yet, but he otherwise seems to be on his way to living up to expectations, averaging 11.3 points with 7.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 3.5 blocked shots. Duke’s Mark Williams and Theo John will likely share responsibility for keeping Holmgren in check during Friday’s game.
Freshman Nolan Hickman (7.8 points) and Hunter Sallis (6.8 points) are also in the Zags rotation, and all three freshmen are hitting 55% or better from the field as Gonzaga leads the nation in shooting.
The Zags also added Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton. The veteran point guard is averaging 10.3 points and leads the team with 9-of-16 shooting from three, including a half-court buzzer-beater in a win over Texas earlier this season. He’s freed from the responsibility of running the offense thanks to returning senior Andrew Nembhard, who leads the team with 5.5 assists per night.
The newcomers have integrated well with the returnees from last season’s runner-ups. In addition to Nembhard, the Zags rely on All-American Drew Timme, who is averaging 20.8 points and 5.3 rebounds.
It’s tough to find a weakness on the Zags. Gonzaga has size, scoring wings and a deep, experienced backcourt. The Bulldogs have the most efficient offense in the country along with the No. 12 defense. They rebound well and defend well inside and out.
Of course, Duke has also shown very few weaknesses this season, running out to a 6-0 after Monday’s win against The Citadel. The Blue Devils have won their last five by double figures and the last three by an average of 33 points.
Duke has a mythical creature of its own in power forward Paolo Banchero, who will likely be matched up with Timme. Banchero is averaging 15.8 points and 8.0 rebounds, and he has shown the ability to handle the ball as well. He’s the centerpiece of an incoming class that rivals Gonzaga’s. Fellow freshman Trevor Keels is averaging 13.8 points and four rebounds while leading the team in outside shooting.
AJ Griffin has been slowed by a preseason injury, but he is showing signs of getting back to full strength. He lit it up from outside in Duke’s game last Friday.
“He’s getting in shape,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He was out for two and a half weeks, and just so you know, he didn’t play in high school for two years. It’s a big learning curve, but he’s in better shape now. It’s not just one or two plays, he can play multiple plays. Obviously he shot well, but he can shoot. He has one of the softest shots. Just keep coming and he’ll make us better.”
Big man John is one of two grad transfers who have added depth to the Blue Devils’ roster.
Duke also has an experienced core, something that has been lacking in previous one-and-done era teams. Point guard Jeremy Roach returns along with big man Williams. Wendell Moore has been a surprise, leading the team in scoring at 16.6 points. He also has 6.0 rebounds and leads the team in assists. He’s the only power conference player averaging 16 points, six rebounds and five assists while hitting more than half of his shots from the field.
While Duke has plenty of talent on offense, the defensive performance has been even more encouraging. The Blue Devils held four straight opponents below 60 points, which is the second-longest streak in Coach K’s career. The Blue Devils are holding foes to .375 shooting, .255 from three and forcing 15.4 turnovers.
Both teams will be facing a huge early-season test in Las Vegas, and there’s a good chance it won’t be the last time Duke and Gonzaga see each other this year.