Omaha, Neb. — Duke freshman bigs Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. arrived at CenturyLink Center Sunday as two of the largest obstacles between top-seeded Kansas and a spot in next weekend’s Final Four.
A pair of projected top-10 NBA draft picks in June, the 6-foot-11 Bagley and 6-10 Carter represented a pair of potential March nightmares for the Jayhawks, who only use one traditional post player in their four-guard lineup.
Between double-teams of Bagley and foul trouble for Carter, though, KU turned what looked like a mismatch into manageable Elite Eight road bumps, in an 85-81, overtime victory.
The Blue Devils’ marquee monsters of the paint, who entered averaging a combined 34.8 points and 20.4 rebounds, only produced 26 points (8 of 18 from the floor) and 12 boards between them in a season-ending defeat.
View a gallery of images from Sunday's Elite Eight game between the Jayhawks and Blue Devils in Omaha.
KU (31-7) showed its strategy for containing Bagley immediately. While 6-8 senior guard Svi Mykhailiuk, being a little taller and heavier than 6-5 junior Lagerald Vick, drew the assignment of sticking with the ACC’s Player of the Year, he had help in doing so each time the ball reached Bagley’s massive hands in the post.
Every time Bagley touched it, KU assistant coach Norm Roberts shared afterward, the game plan was to immediately trap Bagley with either a nearby guard or a big.
If Mykhailiuk wound up checking Bagley on the perimeter, he pressured hard to try and get the big man with some guard skills in his game to turn his back.
The design proved effective, too, as Bagley only scored five first-half points on 2-for-5 shooting, despite playing 19 minutes. By the end of what in all likelihood was his final college game — Bagley stated he hasn’t yet decided whether he will leave Duke to enter the draft — the potential top-three pick came away with 16 points (5 of 9 from the field) and 10 rebounds, in 44 minutes.
“They played good defense,” Bagley said of the Jayhawks. “They had a guy fronting me, they brought double-teams, stuff that I saw all year. But I just tried to stay patient and let the game come to me. Started to get it going a little bit in the second half, and everybody did. And that’s what makes this loss hurt.”
Duke (29-8) missed the potential impact of Carter even more. The freshman big only finished with 10 points (3-for-9 shooting) and two rebounds, and fouled out in 22 minutes. Carter picked up his second foul trying to defend Udoka Azubuike inside, with 8:36 left in the first half and immediately subbed out. He was back in for less than a minute later on, before being whistled for No. 3 against an assertive Malik Newman, 4:25 prior to intermission.
While Carter thought he found ways to make an impact in the second half, he admitted he never felt like he joined the other players within the game’s flow.
KU’s defensive strategy played a part in that, as well. If Azubuike guarded Carter on a post touch, KU would let it play out one-on-one. But if freshman Silvio De Sousa was on Carter, the Jayhawks doubled.
When Azubuike found himself defending up top, he backed off with hands held high, to take away an entry pass.
“They just played great defense and fronted the post,” Carter said, when asked how Kansas limited Duke’s talented frontcourt duo. “Whenever we did get the ball, or when Marvin got the ball, they would double-team him. They did one hell of a job with that. And they ran the court very well and just made it tough for us as a team.”
Hall of Fame Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski lamented Carter was unable to play his typical game, while also making it clear he wasn’t blaming the officials for how that played out.
“But it's just — it's disruptive,” he added.
KU’s breakout March performer, Newman (career-high 32 points) drove the ball right at Carter and drew his fourth foul before the second half’s first media timeout. His disqualification came in overtime, again versus the attack-minded Newman.
Krzyzewski thought reserve bigs Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier helped out in 25 combined minutes but admitted Duke lacked its typical interior effectiveness.
“Anytime Marvin either had the ball or before he got the ball, they were just smothering him. It was very difficult to get him the ball,” Krzyzewski said. “And Wendell responded. And usually if he's in the ball game, they work well off one another. And so it's something different. But that's the way the game is. But obviously it hurts us. You'd rather have him in the game for 30-something minutes.”
Thousands of KU basketball fans filled downtown Lawrence, Sunday, March 25, 2018, following the team's victory over Duke which will send them to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament.
According to Bagley, the Blue Devils had a hard time adjusting while playing a little more than half of the classic 45-minute regional final without Carter.
In his absence, freshman point guard Trevon Duval led Duke with 20 points. Yet another freshman, guard Gary Trent Jr., scored 17 (2 of 10 from 3-point range). Senior guard and 2015 national champion Grayson Allen (3-for-13 shooting) added 12 points.
“Unfortunately,” Carter said, “I wasn’t able to play the amount of minutes I would liked to have played. But my teammates did one hell of a job. They played their asses off.”
To his point, Allen had a chance to win the game with 3 seconds left in the second half, but a mid-range jumper from the left side over Newman rimmed out.
“It came really close to going in and it didn’t,” Allen said. “You know, I was trying to drive right, he cut me off, went back left, and their big (De Sousa) stepped up to help. And I had to get a shot up over him and tried to bank it in and it was right there, rolled out.”
Thanks in large part to the job KU did against Bagley and Carter, the Jayhawks advanced to face Villanova in Saturday’s upcoming Final Four, in San Antonio, Texas.