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Yes, UCF Can Beat Duke. Here’s How.

It’s possible. Not easy, but possible.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Virginia Commonwealth vs UCF
Johnny Dawkins faces his mentor Mike Krzyzewski in the NCAA Second Round Sunday.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The 9th-seeded UCF Knights are facing the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament Second Round on Sunday in Columbia, South Carolina. This much we know.

What we don’t know is if UCF can beat Zion Williamson and the top-seeded Dukies, well, exactly how?

Fortunately, we’ve got some insight on that. It’s going to come down to three things:

Stop Duke’s transition game

Duke loves to get out and run. This much we know. When you have Zion Williamson, who is arguably the best athlete to grace college basketball in a long time, why wouldn’t you turn him loose? Just ask Florida State:

So to prevent that, the answer is simple: Get into your half court offense and take care of the ball. As we’ve seen, Zion likes to take advantage of his athletic ability and cheat a bit on defense to cause havoc (they’re 4th in the nation in steals), so if B.J. Taylor and Terrell Allen can control the tempo of the game, keep turnovers to a minimum, and make Duke pay for taking risks on defense, the Knights can keep it tight.

Clog the paint and force Duke to shoot from the outside

It’s weird to see this considering their history, but the Blue Devils are a bad outside shooting team. They’re 336th in the nation out of 351 teams in Division I in three-point shooting at just 30.5%.

So how do you make a bad outside-shooting team shoot from outside? Simple: Zone them to death.

Fortunately, UCF has the perfect defensive weapon to do that: Tacko Fall.

UCF is 10th in the nation in field goal percentage defense, and held VCU without a point for some 10 minutes in one stretch in the first round. So it can be done. Tacko must assert himself on the interior - with the help of Collin Smith and Chad Brown - and force Duke to bust their zone by making threes.

If they make them, great. Congratulations. But if not, again, UCF has a shot.

Rebound, rebound, rebound

Duke owns the boards. They’re second in the nation in total rebounds (41.7/game) and according to TeamRankings.com, they’re 28th in the nation in extra scoring chances per game, thanks to their outstanding offensive rebounding.

But here’s another surprising stat for you: According to TeamRankings.com, Duke is 194th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. What that tells you is their weakness on the boards is on the defensive end, where they allow a greater-than-normal number of offensive rebounds. This is despite being 17th in the nation in total defensive rebounds.

So it’s imperative for UCF, with its 13th-ranked defensive field goal percentage (39.5% allowed), to hold Duke to one shot each possession and own the defensive boards. If they don’t forget it. But if they do, the Knights have a fighting chance. UCF is 20-1 when they out-rebound the opponent this year, so if they can keep pace on the glass, that’s going to bode well.

The Blueprint: Gonzaga over Duke in Maui

The Zags got off to a quick start, played with a lead, and held off the Blue Devils late in their November matchup in Maui, 89-87.

The key numbers:

  • Duke out-rebounded the Zags 44-36, but Gonzaga held serve on the defensive boards with 23 to Duke’s 22.
  • Gonzaga hit 10 of their 19 threes compared to Duke’s 5/13.
  • Turnovers were basically even (Gonzaga 11, Duke 10)

Now, I know UCF isn’t Gonzaga, and this was a while back, but this is how you do it:

Other Trends

UCF is:

  • 18-1 when scoring 70 or more points
  • 9-1 when shooting 50% or better from the floor
  • 16-1 when holding opponents under 40% shooting
  • 11-1 when their bench out-scores the opponents’ bench

Listen to the latest episode of our podcast below where CBS, ESPN and American Digital Network analyst Mike O’Donnell breaks down how UCF can beat Duke at about the 20-minute mark.