Duke is overrated. There I said it. This is a winnable game.
In Vegas the line opened Duke was only a three point favorite.
Duke lost to two good teams in Arizona and Kansas and it struggled with some bad teams where some weakness were exposed.
First, Duke struggled against Eastern Carolina :
Rodney Hood connected from all over the court while freshman Jabari Parker was busy swatting shots and scoring in transition.
And sixth-ranked Duke needed every bit of that production to hold off East Carolina.
Duke led by a point with about 7 minutes left but stayed in front and did enough in the final 2½ minutes to turn away East Carolina (4-1), earning a trip to next week's NIT semifinals in New York's Madison Square Garden.
While Eastern Carolina took advantage of Duke on the boards with 13 offense rebounds and out rebounded Duke 37 to 34, Vermont took advantage of their D. And Duke needed a break to win 91-90 over Vermont (4-7):
Out-of-sync -- and overconfident -- Duke needed a free throw from Rodney Hood with 5 seconds left to dodge the Catamounts' upset bid and win 91-90.
. . . Duke blew a 15-point lead and allowed Vermont to shoot 64.8 percent before -- depending on the perspective -- it either got the one defensive stop it needed, or the Catamounts simply ran out of time.
. . . The Catamounts -- who hadn't shot better than 44 percent all season -- routinely found open passing lanes and created paths to the bucket against a lethargic Duke team that, for all of its athleticism, lacks a true big man. Vermont outscored Duke 50-24 in the paint.
Yet the Catamounts looked plenty capable of taking advantage of a ripe Duke team that struggled all night to stop them.
Yes Jabari Parker is Mr. Incredible or some such. But this Duke team is not a bad match up for UCLA. Duke ranks 284th in the nation in rebounds, UCLA is 164. This is exactly the type of good team UCLA needs to play. To put this in perspective, Duke is one of the worst rebounding teams UCLA will play this year.
Duke is number 228 on team scoring defense, UCLA is 158. Duke is not a good defensive team either.
Of course Duke does have freshman wunderkind Jabari Parker. Parker is leading Duke in points and rebounds per game. He is shooting 55% from the field and 47% from three. In his three games against ranked opponents he 23-53 with 18 rebounds. Of course, that is skewed by the Arizona game where he was 7-21 with only three boards. The other games he shot 50% and was a force on the Boards. Realistically UCLA does not have an answer to Parker.
Next is Rodney Hood who is having a breakout season. Hood is shooting 57% and 46% averaging 18 a game. The 6'8" Hood gives Duke a very good number two option on offense who can score from anywhere.
The point guard is Quinn Cook. Cook is an experienced point guard who is shooting a career best so far (51%) this year while dishing over 6 assists a game. Unlike Parker, Cook has played well, at least on offense, in every tough Duke game this season.
Senior guard Tyler Thorton often starts and is a glue guy. You can't leave him wide open but really his job is to help the better players.
6'9" Sophomore Amile Jefferson often starts at the five. He is strictly an inside player. While Jefferson is not great, he did get 10 rebounds in 12 minutes in Duke's last game against Gardener Webb. If he has a big night, it is a sign UCLA bigs are not just mediocre but bad. Josh Hairston is the other big that occasionally starts and if he does anything against UCLA it is an even worse sign.
Other times Coach K goes small with Rasheed Sulaimon who is the one player on Duke not playing well on offense. Rasheed is a quick and could give UCLA trouble on defense.
So this is a top team that is weak rebounding and seemingly a good match up for UCLA. However, Parker and Hood could score seemingly at will against UCLA. This could be a high scoring "fun" affair. However, the reality may be the team that plays the most defense wins and/or maybe the team whose marginal bigs play better will have an advantage.
So Alford has a reasonable chance at a signature win early. Duke has some truly great players but is not that good of a team. Can Alford take advantage?