The Arizona Wildcats are an 8 1/2 point underdog in Thursday's Sweet 16 match up with the Blue Devils of Duke. That's to be expected given the talent level, experience, and most importantly the notoriety of the Duke team. Casual fans are going be pick Duke over Arizona at a high rate, so the line reflects that bias with at least three extra points going towards the favorite.
There's no question going into this game though, why Duke is favored to win. They have size in the front court with brothers Miles and Mason Plumlee (6-10) and Ryan Kelly (6-11) and more importantly they feature a devastating back court that includes Seth Curry and Nolan Smith. They are bringing the player most experts predict to be a top five pick in the NBA draft, Kyrie Irving, off their bench. Throw in forward Kyle Singler and that's a lot of fire power for the Wildcats to handle.
Arizona does have two things in their favor, depth and the best player on the court.
Throughout their run, the Wildcats have found exceptional performances off their bench from the likes of guard Jordin Mayes or forward Jamelle Horne. At least two of their five reserves need to have exceptional games for Arizona to take some pressure off Derrick Williams.
Duke's freshman point guard Kyrie Irving could be picked first in the 2011 NBA Draft, but given the amount of time he's missed this season with injury and his lack of experience, Williams has the nod as the game's top talent. We saw in Arizona's win over Texas that Williams can be completely taken out of his game and still hit big shots in the clutch. His ability to drive, rebound, shoot and block shots makes him the most dangerous player on the floor.
Predictions: Our Arizona-based staff would love nothing more than to see the Wildcats advance, but even though Charles Barkley is predicting an upset, we can't do it. I agree with my fellow writers who's predictions follow:
Justin Burning: Duke wins. UA is not a deep enough team outside of Williams and their run of lucky breaks will end.
Cory Williams: Duke will win this game. Arizona has been playing well in the early rounds, but they survived some poor execution during the late moments of both contests. Duke is not a team that lets mental errors go unpunished, and the experienced Blue Devils will pick apart the younger Wildcats.
Scott Howard: Duke wins 75-66. When you have the best player - as Arizona does in Derrick Williams - you always stand at least a puncher's chance to win. Problem is that Duke has the second through sixth best players. That will be the difference in a game that Arizona hangs around for a while in but ultimately falls.
NCAA Tournament Schedule: The game starts at 6:45 p.m. Arizona Time, Thursday on CBS. Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery will be the announcers.