Duke basketball
Game of the year. It’s a phrase thrown around a lot recently, but the 84-81 Duke win over Gonzaga was THE basketball game so far this season. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Blue Review: A 2021-22 Duke Basketball Recap – Game 7 vs Gonzaga

What a game. We’ve said it ad nauseam all year, but that game was the best we’ve seen in the first three weeks. We’ve truly been blessed with some superb college basketball games, but this Gonzaga-Duke match-up was tremendous. Duke handled all of Gonzaga’s punches – something other top-five teams have been unable to do – winning THE basketball game of the year (so far) 84-81.

I mean, where to begin? There are so many storylines to talk about. We had Paolo Banchero vs Chet Holmgren, Drew Timme vs Mark Williams, Wendell Moore Jr. vs Andrew Nembhard and Trevor Keels vs Julian Strawther. And it didn’t end there either. The 1-on-1 battles were impressive, but the coaching chess match between Mike Krzyzewski and Mark Few was amazing and as a result, the game delivered.

Game Recap

It was a back-and-forth battle, which I’m not sure many people expected. A lot of that has to do with the way Gonzaga has dismantled opponents early, including on Tuesday against No. 2 UCLA in a game the Bulldogs won by 20. However, the Blue Devils matched up better than I think people gave them credit for and it showed.

In the first half, it really felt like Duke should’ve been up by 8-10 heading into the break. The Blue Devils were led by none other than Paolo Banchero, who had 20 points in the first half on 8-for-13 shooting, including 3-for-6 from beyond the arc. He was absolutely tremendous, dominating Gonzaga in the halfcourt and in transition. Sophomore center Mark Williams was arguably Duke’s most consistent player across both halves, as he was phenomenal in his dunker role on offense, and on the other side of the ball, he was an anchor in the paint. Freshman guard Trevor Keels was relatively quiet, totaling only six points, but he did create a lot of offense, tallying six assists. And when Banchero went out with cramping issues, it was co-captain Wendell Moore Jr. who rose to the occasion, leading the Blue Devils to victory with 20 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals.

As for the Bulldogs, Drew Timme of course starred. His ability to maneuver around the rim and the touch he displays is truly impressive. Julian Strawther was also a major storyline on the night. The sophomore guard had 20 points and 10 rebounds, leading the team in both categories. Andrew Nembhard ran the show, recording 11 assists and eight rebounds. And Chet Holmgren was good, scoring 16 points and adding seven rebounds and three blocks.

There really isn’t much to say, beyond that it was a great game – if you didn’t watch it, find it on YouTube and watch it this weekend. Throughout all 40 minutes, neither team really pulled away, even when their respective stars were on the bench. The pair of stat lines that leap off the page, however, were the turnovers and points off turnovers. Gonzaga turned the ball over 17 times compared to Duke’s eight. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils scored 23 points off of those turnovers, in contrast to just two from the Bulldogs. Kind of tells the story there, which leads me to…

Duke’s perimeter defense was phenomenal

Forget the 81 points, Duke held Gonzaga, a fairly good shooting team, to 28.6% from deep on 21 attempts. Moore and Keels did an impeccable job at blowing up the dribble handoffs on the high pick-and-rolls the Bulldogs utilize so often. Blue Devil guards and wings were subject to multiple missed assignments on Gonzaga transition scores, but the halfcourt defense was what the country should come to expect. Keels and Moore hounded Nembhard, Strawther, Rasir Bolton and more. Duke’s pair of elite defenders did a great job of blowing up the P-n-Rs, forcing a change of direction and into the frontcourt defender whether it was Banchero, Williams or Theo John. Really couldn’t ask for more from Moore and Keels, along with Roach and Baker too.

Wendell Moore and Mark Williams were superb

The pair of returners endured the worst Duke basketball team in my lifetime last year and have since flipped the script this season. Moore’s leadership and confidence were immense for the Blue Devils in the second half where he was able to knock down some tough jumpers and free throws late in the game. Williams was amazing, like I’ve said, on both ends of the floor. He had 17 points, nine rebounds and five blocks on the night and really stymied Timme – as best you can. Moore is playing like a guy who could win ACC Player of the Year – Paolo is still the frontrunner – and Williams is finally playing like the center we expected him to be this season.

It’s not a debate: Paolo is the No. 1 pick

I’ll end with this because this is the hill, I’m willing to die on: Paolo Banchero is, and has been, better than Chet Holmgren. This is in no way slanderous to Chet because he possesses all the tools to be great at the next level. He will be a foundational piece for any sinking franchise and maybe he can even go back home to Minnesota. But Paolo Banchero should be the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.

I’m always down to have a debate, so let me tell you why Banchero > Holmgren.

Paolo is more developed physically and that was on full display Friday night. There were several occasions in the first half that saw Duke’s star catch it at the top of the key, rip through and drive straight into the chest of Chet, finishing around and through him. Paolo is 6-foot-10, 250 pounds and moves like a guard. Holmgren is 7-feet, 195 pounds and that extra weight was a massive difference.

The eye test: Paolo was much better tonight. I’ve been saying it from the jump, and until I’m shown otherwise, he is better. All the Seattle native has heard for the past two years, from ESPN especially, is how Chet is ranked No. 1 in the 2021 class, how analysts and anchors alike called his rival a “unicorn” (which he is) and how draft expert Mike Schmitz believes Gonzaga’s super freshman should have his name called first next year. It was all fuel to the fire, because Paolo answered the calls. And you know what? Banchero was cramping for much of the second half and he still looked better than the Bulldogs’ No. 34.

Let’s set aside the physical attributions and eye test and take a look at the box score. Paolo had 21 points to Chet’s 16. Banchero had two assists, in contrast to Holmgren’s zero. Chet did outrebound his rival by two and have two more blocks, so that is conceded, but again, both missed extended periods of time because of foul trouble and fluids in Banchero’s case. Still, Paolo was 3-for-8 from beyond the arc, while Chet – who has been heralded as the better shooter – was 0-for-3. And Chet’s ability to put the ball on the floor wasn’t exhibited as much as it probably could’ve been, but Coach K definitely let Paolo run wild. There was a sequence in the first half where Paolo got the ball at the Duke free throw line, immediately led a fast break and threw a lob to Mark Williams to put the Blue Devils up six. The arena exploded and it was just another example of the alien-like ability of Banchero at his size.

This is a different possession, but just watch this because it isn’t normal.

All in all, it was a great game that in no way should have tipped off at 10:30 EST. I digress, but Duke basketball showed they were a serious contender in this win. Gonzaga is still really good. Both are top-three teams in the country and should be ranked as such at the start of next week. With the win comes the Duke-Gonzaga-Purdue vs the field bets, so buckle in because we’re just getting started.

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