Duke and Villanova roll into Boston as two very evenly matched teams. The Wildcats feature a collection of talented guards who can slash and score, an undersized but talented and versatile big man, and the best pair of Coreys since Feldman/Haim. Villanova is a very strong offensive team, and has lost just one game all season (to UConn) where their offensive rating is +100. However, they've been a little lax on defense for much of the year, resulting in a healthy number of shootouts. 10 of their last 12 Big East opponents, including Rutgers and Depaul, scored over a point per possession against Villanova. Like Duke, actually, this is a team whose defense was dominant in the early part of the season but faded down the stretch. Like Duke, they feel like the regained some defensive swagger last weekend (holding UCLA, the Pac-10's most potent offense, to 69 points in 73 possessions).
Nova's game plan is pretty predictable. They like to spread the floor and let Fisher and Reynolds (and to a lesser extent, Redding) create off the bounce. They excel at getting to the line (where they shoot almost 75% as a team), and they share the ball well also. The team focuses more inside than outside, but Reynolds and Stokes (and to a lesser extent, Fisher) can light it up from downtown if left alone. Finally, their bigs are all well-trained to attack the glass. Cunningham, Anderson, Pena, and Clark are all in the top 500 nationally in offensive rebound percentage, and for a small team, the Wildcats rank a very respectable 53rd.
On defense, Villanova plays an aggressive man-to-man, creating a healthy number of steals (Reynolds, Fisher, and Anderson are in the top 500 in steal rate) although not a ton of turnovers aside from that. They've been somewhat generous from the three point stripe this season, and have a tendency to be foul prone - opponents post a 37.6 free throw rate, which is 202nd in the country. Finally, teams have a tendency to pass the ball well against them - over 61% of made baskets against Villanova come off of assists, ranking Villanova 328th in the country in denying assisted baskets.
To me, Duke needs to do two things to win this game - value the ball, and value possessions. Valuing the ball: The Devils have been very difficult to turn over since Scheyer took the point, and even their 17th ranking is misleadingly low. Seven of the past ten games they've turned it over fewer than once every six possessions. At the other end of the court, Duke's forced six of the past opponents to cough the ball up at least once every five possessions (four have been once every four). If that rate holds tonight, Duke will effectively give itself four-six extra opportunities to score.
Valuing possessions: Like valuing the ball, this has an offensive and defensive component. Offensively, Duke needs to avoid giving Villanova freebies - the possessions where Henderson takes an 18-footer 10 seconds into the shot clock before the offense gets set, where Thomas or Zoubek set moving screens, where Singler fumbles the ball out of bounds, etc. Instead, they need to play each possession on offense with purpose - get to the paint, draw the defense, create open looks off of screens, get layups, get open threes, and get fouled. Duke needs to be the aggressor when it has the ball, and not let Villanova's defense force them into jump shots. Complacency has been a problem for Duke on offense this year; if they get complacent tonight, their season will end. Defensively, Duke needs to end possessions. This team has had a habit of missing box out assignments and not gripping rebounds with strength. Defensive rebounding is the team's single biggest weakness, and 8 of the last 13 opponents have been able to get 40% or more of their misses back for second chances. Villanova will attack the offensive glass, and may do so with extra vigor against a Duke team that's weak in ending possessions. Tonight, Duke needs a strong defensive rebounding performance, and it needs to be done as a team. When the helpside defense rotates and the shot goes up, people just need to throw a body on any blue jersey they can to box out.
Distilled to a numbers point of view, if Duke is +4 or better in turnover margin and Villanova is getting 1/3 or less of their offensive rebounds, the Devils should be in a position to win.