Forget the Pretenders, The Giro d’Italia will be Froome Versus Dumoulin

The Giro d’Italia starts tomorrow and a pu pu platter of contenders will line in an attempt to take home the Maglia Rosa at the end of the 3-week race. Despite the plethora of talented up-and-comers, the 3-week long race will likely come down to a duel between Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome.

Dumoulin will be the only former winner to start, while Froome and Fabio Aru are the only other riders in the race with grand tour wins to their names. There is a sea of young pretenders like Miguel Ángel López, Esteban Chaves, Simon Yates, and Thibaut Pinot, that will attempt to finally close the gap from also-rans to champions, but to win a Grand Tour, it helps to have already won one, along with an ability to post a good time trial.

The race only features 43km of time trials, but recent grand tours have seen an inverse relationship between the amount of TT kilometers and how decisive those kilometers are to the final result. Dumoulin and Froome are the only two riders in the field that can climb with the best while putting serious time into the competition the time trial.

Aru has a grand tour win, but he has struggled to find the consistency that propelled him to that 2015 Vuelta a Espana win. He has shown flashes of brilliance, best exemplified by his performance on stage 5 of the 2017 Tour de France. Aru rode away from feared SkyTrain like they were standing still and went on to win the stage and take the overall lead.

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These sublime performances are tempered by the fact that you never quite know what you are going to get from the Sardinian. He could ride away for an impressive mountain stage victory constantly or crack to lose significant time. This lack of consistency and his weakness in the time trial make it difficult to imagine Aru wearing the Maglia Rosa in Rome.

Thibaut Pinot looked fantastic at the recent Tour of the Alps, but the Frenchman is infamous for his erratic performances. He is in the rare club of riders who can climb with the best and put in a solid time trial and I would love to see Pinot break through and take a Giro win, but I certainly wouldn’t put any money on it happening.

Miguel Ángel López is being touted as a contender. He is a fantastic rider who appears to be riding an upswing of form, but as is the rule in modern grand tours, the fewer number of overall TT kilometers means the importance of those kilometers is magnified. The 2018 Giro will be decided by the gaps seen in the time trials on stage 1 and 16, and Lopez doesn’t have the ability to hang with the contenders in the race against the clock.

With gaps in climbing stages getting slimmer, the time trials are likely to decide the fight for the GC. This means Froome and Dumoulin have to be considered the top two favorites since they are simply at another level against the clock. Even though Froome’s powers appear to be waning and he hasn’t displayed great form so far in 2018, his first win in 2017 didn’t come until the final day of the Tour de France, when he took the overall victory. However, he is a year older, his form hasn’t had the same sparkle as in pre-Tour 2017, and he has been forced to put an immense amount of energy into the defense of his Adverse Analytical Finding. His lack of form and ongoing legal battle makes it difficult to imagine him winning a third consecutive grand tour.

Even taking the above into account, Froome still has to be considered a safer bet than anyone not named Tom Dumoulin.

Dumoulin rode to an emphatic victory in the 2017 Giro despite spotting his competition over two minutes due to an ill-timed bathroom break during the most decisive stage. His win appeared to be the coronation of a future star, but his buildup to the 2018 Giro has been a disaster, which saw the Dutchman struggle to finish the majority of his early-season races for a plethora of reasons. However, his impressive 15th place at the recent Liège – Bastogne – Liège showed his form could be coming around just in time for the Grande Partenza in Jeruselum.

With Dumoulin throwing verbal jabs at Froome in the days leading up to the start, the 2018 Giro is shaping up to be a fantastic showdown between riders at opposing ends of their careers.

Can Bob Jungels Win the Tour de France?

Bob Jungels transformed from a star of the future to simply a star on Sunday with his win at Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Winning one of cycling’s monument is a huge achievement that could be considered a crowning achievement for almost any rider. However, Jungels has the talent and skill to be one of the preeminent riders of his generation. If he really wants to utilize his immense toolset, he should turn his focus to winning grand tours, and the big question everyone should be asking is if Jungels has what to takes to win the biggest grand tour of them all, the Tour de France.

Winning the one-day race with the most elevation gain should be a bellwether for ground tour success. However, there isn’t a direct correlation between winning Liege and winning either the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France in the same year. Since 1980, no rider has won Liege and the Tour in the same season, and only three riders have won Liege and the Giro (1980-Bernard Hinault/1994-Eugeni Berzin/2007-Danilo Di Luca).

Jungels has won the best young rider classification and finished in the top ten overall at the Giro d’Italia the past two years. This is an impressive feat and puts him in good company.

Here is a list of the best young rider classification winners from the past eight editions of the Giro and Tour.

Best Young Rider Giro d’Italia
2010 Richie Porte
2011 Roman Kreuziger
2012 Rigoberto Urán
2013 Carlos Betancur
2014 Nairo Quintana
2015 Fabio Aru
2016 Bob Jungels
2017 Bob Jungels

Best Young Rider Tour de France
2010 Andy Schleck
2011 Pierre Rolland
2012 Tejay van Garderen
2013 Nairo Quintana
2014 Thibaut Pinot
2015 Nairo Quintana
2016 Adam Yates
2017 Simon Yates

Only Schleck and Quintana are the riders on this list to go on to win grand tour’s overall. Rigoberto Uran scored a second place overall at the Tour de France in 2017, and the Yates twins, Pinot and Aru could potentially score an overall win in the years to come.

There is also one major difference between Jungels and every rider on this list, the ability to crank out a world-class time trial. Due to the decreasing number of TT kilometers in grand tours, the TT has paradoxically become more important.

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With the trend of diminishing overall TT kilometers, most grand tours are coming down to the small separation between riders during these efforts.  This trend sets up a rider like Jungels perfectly. He displayed his skill in the race of truth at last year’s Giro d’Italia by finished top ten in both TTs.

We’ve seen Froome challengers like Quintana able to match him the mountains, only to hemorrhage time in the TT. If the young star can avoid bad luck and serious injury, he will certainly emerge as a significant force in the Tour for years to come, which sets up a likely rivalry with a rider of similar skill, Tom Dumoulin. Taking this speculation even further, Jungels could use his proven classics skills to navigate through the cobblestone-riddled stages in northern France to put himself in position to surprise the favorites at this year’s edition of the race. Even if he falls short in the 2018 edition, keep your eyes on the Luxembourger in the years to come.

It’s Time For Team Sky to Worry About Chris Froome

Chris Froome wound up to unleash a trademark attack on the final slopes at the Tour of the Alps. This was not a surprise, this is business as usual for the Briton. It’s what he does, he crushes the souls of his competitors in the final uphill kilometers of stage races. However, what has stood out at the Tour of the Alps is that his attacks have dropped almost no one, and have appeared to hurt Froome more than his competitors.

While we’ve seen Froome start his season slower and slower with every passing year, it’s unusual for him to look this vulnerable two weeks from a major target. It could be time to ask if we are watching Chris Froome age out of his grand tour dominance. Sky needs to seriously consider hedging this risk and putting plans in place to line up a viable plan B.

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After today’s botched attack at Tour of the Alps, Froome pulled off the front to examine the carnage, only to see a group of five, led by Thibault Pinot, not only still with him, but launching counter-attacks (it really doesn’t get any worse than being unable to drop Pinot).

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Froome clearly hasn’t been able to find the form that propelled him to four Tour de France victories this season. With his first big goal of the year, the Giro d’Italia, only two weeks away, it’s a very real possibility that he shows up to a grand tour only to get his butt kicked by a wave of young, hungry Froome-stoppers.

We could be watching Froome fall off the cliff that has befallen every great champion before him. It’s always shocking to see a champion lose their top end. It happens faster than anyone can imagine. Everyone looks unbeatable until they aren’t.

While it’s difficult to imagine the controversy around his adverse analytical finding from last year’s Vuelta and a looming suspension isn’t affecting his performance, Froome’s increasing age is likely to cause a greater threat to his performance than a looming legal case.

If Froome does go on to find his old form and win either the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France, he would have to beat some steep odds. Only 3 riders have won the Tour de France at the age of 33 or older in the past 38 editions. While Froome is one of the best grand tour riders we’ve ever seen, shucking off the realities of biology to win another grand tour is a tall order.

Team Sky needs to seriously look at these odds and reconsider deploying 100% of their resources to exclusively back Froome. We could be in for a summer of watching Froome experience a few unprecedented bobbles, and they would be wise to take a look at their deep bench of domestiques to create a solid succession plan.

Causation or Correlation: Does Rider Height Matter at Paris-Roubaix?

Now that we find ourselves firmly in cycling’s “holy week” (defined as the start of the Tour of Flanders and the finish of Paris-Roubaix), it is time to take stock of the usual contenders and see who has the best chance of winning Paris-Roubaix this Sunday.

Predicting Paris-Roubaix is always difficult. While the strongest rider almost always wins Flanders, Roubaix has the unique ability to serve up wildcard winners like Johan Vansummeren in 2011 and Matt Hayman in 2016. While this can make predictions difficult, there is a common thread through most Roubaix winners. They are almost all over 6-feet (1.83 meters) in height.

Since 1999, 14 editions of Roubaix (73%) have been won by a rider over 6-feet tall, with only 2 winners under 5 feet 11 inches. Compare this to the Tour of Flanders, which, in the same timeframe, has seen 11 editions won by riders over 6-feet tall, with 6 editions being won by riders under 5”11. 

The difference is even starker when we pull out this comparison to every Monument. Milan-Sanremo has only seen 4 editions won by a rider over 6-feet since 1999, Liege-Bastogne-Liege 3, and the Tour of Lombardy with only 2 (note: these 2 editions were won by the same riders, Phillipe Gilbert).

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(These numbers are obviously nuanced and complicated due to factors like repeat winners and potentially inaccurate rider height data and should be taken with a grain of salt.)

A factor for taller riders triumphing at Roubaix is that it features the least amount of climbing of any major race, and taller riders tend to be heavier than shorter riders.

This extra weight not only makes it difficult to get up and over climbing-heavy courses but also helps when dealing with the constant punishment dished out by the cobblestone roads. A slightly-built rider like Michał Kwiatkowski is always going to have difficulty managing the rough, 6+ hour ride over the Napoleonic roads of Roubaix.

However, if weight was the only factor, one would think there would be heavy riders under 6-feet winning the Queen of the Classics.

This leads me to wonder if there something about Paris-Roubaix that actually rewards taller riders.

Let’s take a look at a list of the lead contenders for Sunday listed in order of height.

Niki Terpstra-6”3
Sep Vanmarcke-6″3
Wout Van Aert -6”2
Jasper Stuyven-6”1
Zdenek Stybar-6”0
Philippe Gilbert-6”0
Gianni Moscon-6”0
Peter Sagan-6”0
Oliver Naesen-6″0
Alexander Kristoff-5”11
Arnaud Demare -5”11
Greg Van Avermaet-5”11
Edvald Boasson Hagen-5″11
John Degenkolb-5″11

Now let’s look at the list listed in order of their odds according to Sky Bets.

Peter Sagan-11/4
Greg Van Avermaet-7/1
Niki Terpstra-7/1
Philippe Gilbert-9/1
Sep Vanmarcke-9/1
Zdenek Stybar-12/1
John Degenkolb-14/1
Arnaud Demare-18/1
Wout Van Aert-18/1
Alexander Kristoff-20/1
Edvald Boasson Hagen-22/1
Jasper Stuyven-22/1
Gianni Moscon-25/1
Oliver Naesen-25/1

It is possible rider height matters at Roubaix. It is also possible this is simply a crackpot theory. But judging from recent history, if you are in interested in picking possible winners, the smart money should go with a rider measuring 6-feet or above.

What Happened to Peter Sagan at Flanders?

Peter Sagan’s 6th place on Sunday at the Tour of Flanders would have been a career-defining result for most riders. However, Sagan isn’t most riders and with every passing spring, the triple World Champion is letting chances to win coveted Classics and cement his legacy slip through his fingers.

While the Slovak has looked a bit off his best over the past few weeks, he still bagged an impressive 8th place at Strade Bianche, 6th at Milan-Sanremo, and a win at Gent-Wevelgem. Most importantly, he seemed to be floating up the steep bergs and breathing through his nose through the decisive moments of Flanders.

Following Greg Van Avermaet’s brutal attack on the Taaienberg with 39 kilometers to go, Sagan’s Bora team put their last remaining domestique, Daniel Oss, on the front to reel in a dangerous attack by Zdenek Stybar, Gianni Moscon, and Jürgen Roelandts. Once they attack was managed, Bora opted to Oss there to keep the pace high to deter attacks from the Quick-Step team, which still had four riders remaining in the group.

However, as soon as Oss was distanced on the Kruisberg 10 kilometers later, the situation quickly began to deteriorate for Sagan. He covered a promising move containing Michal Kwiatkowski, Vincenzo Nibali, and Stybar. This move soon faced a stalemate as each star was unwilling to work for the others, and they were quickly reeled in by the chasing group. In the ensuing lull, Nibali attacked while the favorites were caught literally starring at each other. Sagan calmly watches the Italian fly by, but in retrospect, he most likely let his train to victory leave the station.

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As long as Sagan remained in the group, he was going to be forced to chase down every attack from Quick-Step team. But if he could have gotten up the road and capitalized on the break in pace, he would have been able to let the race come to him when Terpstra launched his winning move.

The main problem with this hypothetical scenario is that there is absolutely no way Terpstra would have worked with Sagan once they were up the road. Remember, Sagan and Terpstra have a sordid history when it comes to sharing the workload in a group. Terpstra proved at the 2017 Gent-Wevelgem that he isn’t afraid of tanking a race out of spite (finally proving that spite is indeed a valid reason).

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This would have forced Sagan to either pull Terpstra into the final two climbs and attempt to dispatch him there or sit up to let the group reel them in. This would have forced him to respond to endless Quick-Step attacks until they inevitably caught him out.

Once Terpstra got away, Sagan’s group was never going to have the horsepower to reel the Dutchman in. Quick-Step was able to strategical roll through and slow down the bunch, and for most of the riders, a podium position at Flanders has the potential to add significant value to their career by way of bonus and additional zeros on future contracts.

To his credit, Sagan recognized this and surged clear at the top of the Paterberg with 13 kilometers remaining. Sagan hit the descent with 30 seconds to close on Terpstra. Peak Sagan could have closed down this gap without breaking a sweat. But, it soon became apparent that Sagan simply didn’t have the form that allowed him to hold off a chasing Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke in 2016.

For reference, check out Sagan’s metronomic, “on-form,” pedal stroke as he holds off the chasers on his way to winning the 2016 edition solo.

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Compare that with his herky-jerky, never-seems-to-be-comfortable style on display during his attempted solo pursuit of Terpstra on that same run-in to the finish in 2018.

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Racing slightly off his top-form, lacking serious team support, and facing a Quick-Step group with numbers, Sagan was up against steep odds no matter what we did at Flanders. The answer to what happened can likely be answered with his extremely high salary limiting the quality of his teammates, along with his suspect training schedule over the past few months.

Tour of Flanders Power Rankings: Who to Watch This Sunday at De Ronde

The Tour of Flanders is nearly here. For a true cyclophile, it doesn’t get any better than Flanders. I would argue that it is hands down the “best” race of the year. The Tour de France has the history, the Giro d’Italia the beauty, Paris-Roubaix the carnage, but no race requires the same mixture of skill, fitness, power, and finesse as Flanders. For the first time in a few years, we don’t have a clear favorite going into Sunday, which makes the pre-race speculation all the more fun. Let’s run through some of the riders who are peaking at the right time, and who hasn’t done their homework before the big exam on Sunday.

Note: This isn’t a comprehensive list of favorites, merely the ones that are the most interesting to talk about at the moment. 

Greg Van Avermaet
What do you get the rider who has won nearly every race of significance? If it’s Greg Van Avermaet, its a Tour of Flanders win. It is the glaring gap in his Palmares. The Olympics, Paris-Roubaix, and Tour de France stage wins are nice, but to be a true Flandrian champion, you have to win Flanders, full stop. Unfortunately, Van Avermaet hasn’t enjoyed the smoothest run-up to the most important block of his season. His BMC team has been severely outgunned by Quick Step in the semi-classics building into Sunday, and he generally hasn’t displayed the sparkling spring form we’ve come to expect. Missing the front group at this week’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen tuneup race was either a calculated move to throw rivals off his scent, or more likely, a signal that he simply isn’t at his best. I previously said we needed to see a sign of life at last weekend’s E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. While he finished third at E3, his attack in the last 5k of the race lacked any punch (he only succeeded in dragging the entire group along).
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To compound his wet blanket attack at E3, GVA was a complete non-factor in the sprint finish at Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem. While I wouldn’t completely write off GVA, the strongest rider usually wins at Flanders it appears that GVA seems to be slightly off his usual form this spring.

Niki Terpstra
While he’s rarely the favorite, Terpstra can never be counted out for a big Classic. This guy is what American sports radio hosts would call a “gamer.” He shows up when it matters. In the past, he’s leveraged an incredibly strong Quick Step team and ability to time trial to win a monument (Paris-Roubaix 2014). So far in 2018, he has looked strong, and more importantly, his Quick Step is on an absolute rampage. They have rolled into every Northern Classic with a phalanx of capable riders, each one capable of winning as the next. This allowed Terpstra and his teammate, Yves Lampaert,  to ride off the front of E3 with only 70 kilometers remaining. Lampaert is a very strong rider, and Terpstra made the young Belgian look pedestrian on the bergs late in the race. The only big knock against Terpstra is that he has absolutely no sprint. If he is going to win Flanders on Sunday, he is going to have to get away on the Patersberg or Oude Kwaremont late in the race. However, he certainly appears to have the form to get away and the team to keep him there.

Peter Sagan
The three-time World Champion won Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday in the sprint finish against some of the best classics sprinters in the world. Normally this would be a great sign of things to come in Flanders, but this edition of Gent-Wevelgam only told us that Sagan’s sprint is there, while his overall form is more of a mystery. Sagan was dropped from lead group two days earlier at E3 and has looked somewhat off his best form since his stunning chase at Tirreno. Sagan opted out of today’s Flanders tuneup race, Dwars, to fly home to Monaco to get a few days of warm weather training. Considering the miserable weather in Belgium this week, this could prove to be the right move. Nothing wears on a rider’s body like hard racing in the springtime rain/cold of Belgium. Sagan’s biggest weakness in past editions has been his overenthusiasm, so perhaps a slightly off-form spring could force Sagan to finally sit and play the waiting game at the critical moments.  

Jasper Stuyven
Stuyven was supposed to be the Belgian that was promised a few years back, but since his breakthrough win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2016, the rider once hailed as the “new Boonen” has failed to bag a signature win. He’s been consistent so far this spring, and with the absence of a true favorite this spring, there is no time like the present for Stuyven.

Sep Vanmarcke
Today’s finish at Dwars proves that Sep Vanmarcke is, in fact, allergic to winning bikes races. When last year’s winner Yves Lampaert slowly drifted off the front inside the final kilometer, Vanmarcke correctly wound it up to mark the move. Unfortunately, he marked the coasting Mike Teunissen, instead of the rider who was clearly riding away with the win.
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Sep has been showing great form in recent weeks and his talent was on full display at E3 when he pulled back nearly five minutes following a crash with 100km remaining. But if he wants to finally capitalize on the promise he displayed with second place at the 2013 Paris-Roubaix, he has some major mental blocks to overcome.

Vanmarcke has been showing great form in recent weeks and his talent was on full display at E3 when he pulled back nearly five minutes following a crash with 100km remaining. But if he wants to finally capitalize on the promise he displayed with second place at the 2013 Paris-Roubaix, he has some major mental blocks to overcome.

Philippe Gilbert
Last year’s Flanders champion hasn’t had a standout result so far this spring, but he has certainly looked strong in the past few weeks. He appeared to be toying with the lead group at E3, and would certainly have delivered a knockout blow had his teammate Terpstra not been up the road. Even if Gilbert doesn’t bag a repeat win on Sunday, look for him to factor in by breaking up the race from a long way out. He attacked with 55 km remaining in last year’s edition and displayed a herculean effort to stay away until the finish. It is likely he won’t be able to repeat such a feat, but I would be surprised if a Gilbert long bomb didn’t shake up the race.

Tiesj Benoot
The young Belgian is on the form of his life. He’s the real deal. However, I wonder if his future truly lies in cobbled classics. While he won Strade Bianche in fantastic fashion, if you watch that video closely, he was alone at the finish line. He made the effort to get away alone because the kid cannot sprint his way out of a paper bag. This is going to severely limit his chances of victory at Flanders. He is sure to be a factor, but don’t expect a W from the rising star.

Alejandro Valverde
(Edit: Since writing this, Valverde has announced he will not be racing Flanders. Don’t I look silly now.) It isn’t even certain that Valverde will be on the start line on Sunday, but if he is, he certainly can’t be counted out. His performance at Dwars, which he only road to get a feel for the cobblestone roads that will feature in this year’s Tour de France, turned heads with his ability to handle a one-day cobbled classic. On Wednesday at Dwars, we were treated to the rare site of a climber at the front of a cobbled classics. He even seemed to be looking around wondering why everyone says these things are so hard.
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We saw a Ground Tour contender shock the world with Vincenzo Nibali at Milan-Sanremo, but Valverde winning Flanders would be one of the most surprising wins in the race’s history. In an age of specialist, we thought we had seen the end of the days of Grand Tour winners contending for a one-day classics victory, but for all his personal faults, Valverde is a thrilling throwback to a bygone era of racing.

There are certainly riders outside of this list that can and will play a factor on Sunday. Michal Kwiatkowski has to be considered a threat in any race he starts, but we haven’t seen the former World Champ race since Milan-Sanremo. I worry his legs may have gone a bit stale in the two weeks between the two races. Wout van Aert has been shockingly strong all spring, but until he kicks his cyclocross habit to the curb, he won’t have the legs late in these races to take a victory. There are a plethora of B-level contenders that could take a big career step up by winning on Sunday: Gianni Moscon, Zdeněk Štybar, Matteo TrentinOliver Naesen, and the entire Quick-Step team. Of these, Naesen seems the most likely to finally make the next big step, however, his lack of finishing kick could doom him to a career of Flanders top tens, without ever touching the top step of the podium.

Is Coach K’s Obsession With One-and-Done Players Hurting Duke?

Duke, the vaunted college basketball program of fundamentals, defense and pretension was absolutely horrendous on defense in their Elite Eight game against Kansas. Duke Coach Krzyzewski, known for creating teams that play rugged man-to-man defense, was humbled this year by having a team unable to track players and were forced into playing an elementary zone defense. His team featured four Freshman that are likely all destined for the NBA after the season. This one-and-done strategy is the antithesis of the Duke way of basketball but is a template Coach K has chosen to pursue. His 2018 recruiting class features three of the top players in the country, and it is certain all three plan on bolting for the NBA as soon as their mandatory year is up. While this strategy has allowed K to rack up top recruiting classes, it has come at a great cost to their ability to play defense, and furthermore, win games.

For example, after finally getting the upper hand against Kansas with 5 minutes left in the game, they successfully shift their 2-3 to match Kansas’ overload.
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However, this shift leaves the bottom left of the court wide-open and plays directly into Kansas’ hands. Malik Newman simply runs along the baseline and Duke completely fails to track. They leave five players stacked on one side of the court, and completely fail to account for Newman swinging to the weak side.
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This poor communication and simple understanding of a pedestrian offensive scheme leaves a lights-out Kansas shooter (Newman is hitting at over a 50% from three so far in the tournament) a wide-open three at a critical point in the game.
In addition to the blown set outlined above, Duke allowed Kansas to tie the game with under 30 seconds remaining by failing to guard every player on the Kansas team. When Svi Mykhailiuk, shooting 41% from three for the season, receives the ball, the Duke defensive is caught standing and staring. Not only is Svi open, he is left with the option to pass to an open De Sousa down low, an open Vick in the corner, and a wide-open Newman on the weak side. Even Devonte Graham, who just passed to Svi, has found himself open due to his defender being shockingly out of position, guarding no one 40-feet away from the basket.
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These blown assignments go against everything Duke basketball was built upon. While annoying and hateable, they were scrappy teams that played the game “the right way.” It appears Coach K is sacrificing this traditional system to chase high-profile one-and-done players that lack the time, patience and discipline to learn basic defensive schemes. This bizarre lack-career move certainly makes it easier to watch them wash out of the tournament with a team full of future lottery picks, while programs that focus on fostering 3-4 year veterans (Villanova, UNC) consistently outperform the Blue Devils.