The NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 gets going on Thursday with four games.
Each should be better matchups than the four that will follow on Friday.
The best of the bunch could well be defending champion Duke against Arizona. Two strong programs who have become staples of this tournament and are led by an elite NBA prospect.
The Blue Devils have a deeper, more battle-tested squad and are flat-out more talented, but barely got by Michigan last time out and Arizona has a player unlike anybody on the Wolverines.
That would be Derrick Williams, the big man who crushed the spirits of Texas Longhorns fans by scoring the decisive points in a third-round victory last weekend.
While his supporting cast isn’t as good as the one that surrounds Duke star Kyrie Irving, Williams will be the best player on the floor on Friday since Irving is still not back to 100% from December foot surgery.
While nobody knows how Williams’ game will translate to the next level since he is undersized for the power forward spot (listed at 6-foot-8, but more like 6-foot-7, at best) all that matters now is that against college players, he is a load.
Though Texas and Canadian Tristan Thompson did a good job against him in holding Williams to 4-for-14 shooting, that isn’t likely to happen again since Duke’s front-court options are not at Thompson’s level defensively.
That was the only time this month that Williams has not hit at least 50% of his shots and it ended a four-game 20-plus points streak, his longest of the season.
Williams averages 19.1 points and 8.1 rebounds and his game has been compared to former Raptor Corliss Williamson, but he has more range — he has hit 58% of his three-point attempts this season — and is a better defender.
He also is the NCAA leader in free throw attempts and getting Blue Devils into foul trouble is probably fifth-seeded Arizona’s only chance to pull off the upset over the No. 1 seed.
Duke and its legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski know this.
“Derrick has got to be a first-team All-American,” Krzyzewski told the Durham Herald-Sun.
“He’s shot more than 300 free throws. When he is going to the line, he gets his team to the line. He gets his team into the bonus and double-bonus.
“So whatever points he scores, he gets more points that he doesn’t get credit for what he gets his teammates.”
Stopping Williams is easier said than done since he is a decent passer and has able options to kick the ball out to, which Krzyzewski is also aware of.
“They led the Pac-10 in 3-point shooting, shooting about 40%,” Krzyzewski said. “So they are balanced. It’s not like you can just double and just leave people. They are well-rounded, an outstanding offensive team and they play hard defensively.”
But Duke also has those qualities and it has more elite talent.
Krzyzewski said he will continue to bring Irving — a consensus top-two pick if he enters the NBA draft — off of the bench, but said Irving will play significant minutes. Irving, along with Nolan Smith, form the most dangerous back-court duo in the NCAA. Smith averaged 21.3 points and 5.2 assists this season to Irving’s 17.4 points and 5.1 assists. If they ever see the floor together, they could terrorize opponents like a lesser version of Detroit’s Isiah Thomas-Joe Dumars combo.
Stopping one is possible, shutting down both is highly unlikely. Expect Irving to return to form more so than he has done in his first two games following his long layoff due to a severe foot injury.
Duke also has the Plumlee brothers up front and Kyle Singler, who was the best player on its championship team a year ago. Singler has not been the same performer this time around, but is due for a breakout.
With the power of numbers on its side, expect Irving’s Blue Devils to get past Williams’ Wildcats.