Duke preview: look at biggest questions for No. 6 Illinois ahead of Cameron Indoor clash

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Photo Courtesy of FightingIllini Athletics

Ayo Dosunmu looks to the court during Illinois’ game against North Carolina A&T on Nov. 25. Dosunmu will need to have a big game on Tuesday when the Illini face the Duke Blue Devils.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

Six days after losing to No. 2 Baylor on ESPN, No. 6 Illinois will get another chance to prove themselves on the national stage. The Illini will travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a primetime matchup with the No. 10 Duke Blue Devils.

In typical Duke fashion, head coach Mike Krzyzewski has reloaded his roster with tons of four and five-star talent, as well as some key returners. Duke is off to a 2-1 start, with its lone loss coming at the hands of No. 4 Michigan State on Dec. 1. While this is not the same caliber team as the Zion Williamson-led 2018 Duke squad, Krzyzewski still has a loaded group that could cause problems for Illinois. Let’s dive into some of the biggest questions ahead of the matchup.

Does Ayo Dosunmu bounce back?

The raw box score numbers for the All-American weren’t terrible from Wednesday’s loss to Baylor, but those who watched the game saw several of Dosunmu’s buckets come when the game was already out of reach. He got off to a 1-for-8 start, in large part due to Baylor’s hounding defense. Duke doesn’t quite have the collective team defense that Baylor has, but they have some impressive perimeter defenders in Jordan Goldwire and Wendell Moore. Goldwire, a 6-foot-2-inch senior, has started two of Duke’s games this year and is used primarily for his on-ball defense. I expect him to draw the Dosunmu assignment. Moore, a 6-foot-6-inch sophomore, has the physical tools to stick with Dosunmu.

Like I wrote prior to the Baylor game, for Illinois to win Dosunmu has to be the best player on the court. An 18-point, 6-for-18 shooting performance likely won’t cut it. Dosunmu has stepped up in plenty of big games before, and I expect him to return to form on Tuesday.

How do the frontcourt matchups play out?

After seeing a rim-running center in Jonathan Tchamwa Thatchoua and an undersized four in Mark Vital on Wednesday, Duke’s frontcourt should pose a much different look for Illinois. Blue Devil sophomore Matthew Hurt is one of the best shooting bigs in the country. The 6-foot-9-inch forward is a scorching 11-for-21 from deep in the first three games. Next to him is 6-foot-9-inch five-star Jalen Johnson.

Johnson is an uber-athlete with legitimate ball skills, posing a bit of a matchup problem for Illinois. He’s too quick for Kofi Cockburn and has a huge height advantage over Da’Monte Williams. I’d assume Williams starts on him but Cockburn and potentially Dosunmu could see time on Johnson. With Hurt, Cockburn will have to extend to the perimeter which could be a problem. Duke started its win on Friday with a jumbo lineup featuring Johnson at the three, Hurt at the four and freshman Mark Williams at the five. This might work to Illinois’ benefit, as Cockburn can stick with the less mobile Mark Williams, Dosunmu can chase Hurt around the perimeter and Da’Monte Williams can attempt to body Johnson.

Which freshman guard makes the biggest impact?

Wednesday night’s matchup will feature four top-50 freshman guards in Illinois’ Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo and Duke’s DJ Steward and Jeremy Roach, and all four of these guards have been x-factors so far this season. Miller came out hot, breaking the record for most points in a debut with 28 points against North Carolina A&T, but he has struggled since. He’s 0-for-10 from three in the past two games. However, Curbelo showed signs of life against Baylor, finishing with 11 points and four assists.

For Duke, Steward scored 24 points in his debut but is just 2-for-14 since. Roach is probably Duke’s best true offensive point guard, but he has struggled to find a rhythm. If one of these guards gets hot, it could likely swing the game. Steward and Miller have a relationship, dating back to their high school days where they constantly battled in the Chicago Public League.

Which team competes for 40 minutes?

At times, Illinois and Duke can look like incredibly dangerous teams that are difficult to score on and then convert for easy buckets on the other end. But both teams have also struggled with consistency. Illinois struggled to put away an inferior Ohio team, while Duke let Coppin State and Bellarmine hang around with them. Scoring lulls will happen, but if one team plays significantly harder than the other, that could be the determining factor.

Both sides have mismatches to expose, but ultimately I think the Johnson/Hurt combination upfront will be too problematic for Illinois, and Duke will sneak out the victory.

@BrandonSimberg

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