The Battle 4 Atlantis has played out just as predicted, as the Louisville Cardinals and the Duke Blue Devils will face off in a showdown of top five teams for the tournament championship on Saturday night at Imperial Arena in Paradise Island, Bahamas.
Louisville had huge expectations coming into this season after reaching the Final Four last March, and so far it hasn't disappointed, winning all five of its games. The Cardinals suffered a scare in the opening round against Northern Iowa before pulling out a 51-46, but things were much more decisive in the semifinals against nationally-ranked Missouri as they won, 84-61.
Duke has also been perfect through its first five games, which was highlighted by a 75-68 win over nationally-ranked Kentucky on Nov. 13. The Blue Devils breezed through their first tournament game against Minnesota, 89-71, and although they were challenged by VCU in the semifinals they still prevailed, 67-58. They've been ranked in the top 10 for 150 straight games, going 120-30 in that time frame.
Duke leads the all-time series over Louisville, 4-3, but the two programs haven't faced off since 1986.
After a rough performance from the field in its opening-round game (.306), Louisville bounced back nicely against Missouri by draining nearly 50 percent of its shots overall, including 9-of-21 three-point attempts. It also took care of the ball (10 turnovers) and played its customary outstanding defense, forcing Missouri into 23 giveaways. Pacing five players in double figures was Luke Hancock, who came off the bench to tally 19 points on 5-of-7 from beyond the arc. Russ Smith scored 18 points while adding six rebounds and six steals, Peyton Siva and Chane Behanan score 13 points apiece, and Wayne Blackshear put up 12 points. The balanced scoring attack is no rare feat for the Cardinals. Smith is their leading scorer by a wide margin, putting up 19.6 ppg, but five other players average between 8.2 and 10.0 ppg. The biggest reason for their fast start is undoubtedly the play on the defensive end of the floor, as they allow opponents to score just 50.2 ppg on 37.2 percent from the field, while forcing more than 22 turnovers per game.
Duke's 67-point effort against VCU was its lowest point total of the season, and it shot 41.7 percent from the floor, including a uncharacteristic 3-of-15 from three-point range. Luckily for the Blue Devils, their effort on the defensive end of the court was outstanding, as they held VCU to just 33.3 percent from the floor. Leading the way once again was Mason Plumlee, who tallied a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Plumlee has been a double-double machine in the early going, averaging 20.4 ppg and 10.6 rpg, while shooting nearly 69 percent from the field and 80 percent from the foul line. Seth Curry struggled with his field goal attempts (3-of-9) but he connected on 9-of-10 from the foul line and ended with 15 points, and Quinn Cook narrowly missed a double-double with nine points and nine assists. Curry (17.6 ppg) is typically deadly from three-point range, nailing 11-of-26 long range shots, as is Rasheed Sulaimon (11.6 ppg), who's gone 11-of-24 from behind the arc.