Perhaps the folks at ESPN can predict the future. How else can you explain the timing of its Fab Five 30 for 30 documentary? Exactly one week after the Jalen Rose-produced film stoked memories of the Duke-Michigan rivalry of the early 1990s, the two teams are set to match up in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s a position-by-position look at Sunday’s game, which tips off at approximately 2:45 p.m. in Charlotte:
Point guard: Nolan Smith vs. Darius Morris
The senior Smith might be the favorite for National Player of the Year. The Upper Marlboro, Md. native isn’t a natural point guard, but you wouldn’t know it based on his play. Smith can do it all on the floor, averaging 20.9 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game and 5.3 assists per game. He can knock down shots from anywhere on the floor or, if he so chooses, can use his athleticism to get to the rim at will.
Morris didn’t have his best scoring day against the Volunteers but distributed the ball well, notching nine assists to just three turnovers. As the season has progressed and the offense has become more dynamic, the Wolverines have had to rely on him less to create offense on his own. Playing against such a high-caliber opponent, though, could tempt Morris to depart from Michigan’s sets and force up shots — he must avoid doing so.
Wing: Seth Curry vs. Stu Douglass
Curry is probably better known as the younger brother of former Davidson star Stephen Curry, who electrified the country with his performance in the tournament three seasons ago. While Seth isn’t nearly the star his older brother was, he’s almost as good of a sharpshooter, as he makes 3-pointers at a 44.8 percent clip. With so many other options to worry about, Curry could be deadly if Michigan forgets about him on the perimeter.
In that regard, Douglass is perhaps Seth Curry-lite, as he also tries to make opponents pay from deep. The junior hasn’t played his best basketball in recent weeks, but was solid in the Tennessee game. His most important role on Sunday might be defensively, whether matched up with Smith or Curry.
Wing: Miles Plumlee vs. Tim Hardaway Jr.
This is a matchup the Wolverines must exploit. The elder Plumlee is talented, but the Blue Devils don’t look to him to score. He’s more valuable on the defensive end — Plumlee collected 13 boards in Duke’s win over Hampton in the second round.
Hardaway Jr. will be at a size disadvantage against his 6-foot-10 counterpart, but will have a huge edge athletically. He should be able to get plenty of open shots and drive opportunities running off of screens. Michigan’s best bet for an upset may be for Hardaway Jr. to put the Wolverines on his back.
Advantage: Hardaway Jr.
Wing Forward: Kyle Singler vs. Zack Novak
Singler is another multifaceted athlete for the Blue Devils. The former All-American hasn’t had quite the season he did last year, but don’t let that fool you—he still averages 17 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Despite being a four, Singler’s more comfortable scoring while facing the basket, and is a threat to knock down 3-pointers as well.
But that’s not bad news for Novak. The Chesterton, Ind. native has had to battle against much bigger and stronger forwards all Big Ten season. He’s done an admirable job, but Novak should be more comfortable defending Singler’s game, despite the Blue Devil’s size advantage. If Novak can slow him down one-on-one, the Wolverines have a solid chance.
Center: Mason Plumlee vs. Jordan Morgan
Like his brother, the younger Plumlee isn’t a focal point of Duke’s offense. But he is the most physical Blue Devil, and can bang with anyone down low.
In fact, he’s very similar to Morgan. The redshirt freshman still isn’t adept at scoring by himself in the low post, but few teams have been able to stop the pick-and-roll with him and Morris. As well-coached as Duke is, though, count on Plumlee to play it well. Most important for Morgan will be staying out of foul trouble, which he couldn’t do in the first half on Friday.
Guard Andre Dawkins and forward Ryan Kelly are capable subs, but the story here is the return of Kyrie Irving. The freshman star played against Hampton for the first time since December and scored 14 points — his mere presence, even if not at full strength, is a big blow to Michigan’s upset chances.
Freshman forward Evan Smotrycz could be a big factor if a lot of the shots he missed against Tennessee can fall against the Blue Devils. And if sophomore Matt Vogrich performs anywhere close to as well as he did against the Volunteers, it will be a huge bonus.
Prediction: Duke 78, Michigan 68