University of Kansas

Quick scout: Why this KU-Duke prediction is going against the numbers

Before every KU men’s basketball game, The Star’s Jesse Newell previews the Jayhawks’ upcoming opponent with a scouting report and prediction.

Tuesday’s game: No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 4 Duke, 6 p.m. Central time, Madison Square Garden, New York


Opponent’s record: 0-0

KenPom (Ken Pomeroy) Ranking: 4

Point spread: Kansas by 2.

All statistics from, and Synergy Sports Technology. KenPom stats also only include Division I competition.

3 Strengths

Talent: Duke lost national player of the year Zion Williamson and top-three NBA draft pick R.J. Barrett from last season’s roster ... only to add four top-40 Rivals recruits in Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore and Cassius Stanley.

Transition offense: Duke has been top 50 in fast-break shooting percentage each of the last three seasons under coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Foul avoidance: The Blue Devils emphasize a hands-off style of defense, ranking top 10 in defensive free throw rate in four of the last five seasons.

3 Weaknesses

Three-point shooting: Duke made just 31% of its outside shots last year while ranking 334th (out of 353 Division I teams) in points per possession on “spot-up” attempts.

Defensive rebounding: The Blue Devils have been below average in defensive rebounding rate four straight seasons, and that’s somewhat surprising given the team has ranked sixth, 13rd, third and 11th in KenPom’s average height measure over that time.

Experience: In its final exhibition game, Duke started three true freshmen along with junior Jordan Goldwire, who averaged 9 minutes and 1 point per game a year ago; because of that, the team is probably expected to be a bit mercurial early.

Player to Watch

6-foot-3 guard Tre Jones (No. 3)

Duke Athletics

Plus: One of three team captains

Plus: Synergy’s logs rank him as “excellent” overall defender

Plus: Strong passer who set new Duke record for assist-to-turnover ratio last season

Plus: Pesky on-ball defender who has high steal rate

Minus: Was terrible three-point shooter last season (26%), which led teams to ignore him or even put their big man on him defensively

Minus: Low usage rate indicates he’s only a role player offensively; hasn’t been great at creating his own shot inside


The pressure is on here to give you guys an accurate KU-Duke score prediction.

My first instinct, though, is to think that there are reasons to like the Jayhawks’ chances in this matchup.

KU coach Bill Self spoke a couple weeks ago about his “biggest concern,” which was the ability for his second big alongside Udoka Azubuike to be able to guard on the perimeter. And while Hurt — he has some guard-like skills — is a formidable 4-man, Duke as an offense doesn’t seem particularly well-equipped to expose KU’s potential defensive weakness there.

Many recent teams have hurt KU on the perimeter by manipulating the defense for open threes, but as mentioned above, outside shooting is considered one of Duke’s rare weaknesses. Ball screens also could put KU’s two-big look in a bind, but Jones also isn’t the perfect playmaker for that either because he’s not a true scoring threat himself.

Offensively, Devon Dotson could have troubles shaking free against Jones, but I actually like KU’s outside shooting potential better than Duke’s. And on the interior, the Jayhawks should find it much easier to create angles for layups and dunks while playing a big team in Duke that will not commit most of its players to the paint for help defense like Fort Hays State did.

Self also is an X factor here. He’s usually great with in-game adjustments in these types of blue-blood contests, and he showed that in the 2018 NCAA Tournament against Duke when the Jayhawks came up with answer after answer to counter the Blue Devils’ defense.

It’s a pick against most advanced numbers (KenPom has Duke by four and Sagarin has the Blue Devils by six), but I actually like the Jayhawks in what should be a competitive game throughout.

Kansas 75, Duke 70

Jesse’s pick to cover spread: Kansas

Hawk to Rock

On paper, it appears to be an ideal matchup for Udoka Azubuike. Not only does he get to go against another true center in Duke’s freshman Carey, but both style and opponent here matches up with Azubuike’s skill set. There have been scouting reports that have questioned Carey’s motor in the past, and Azubuike has looked great running the floor in exhibition season after losing 30-plus pounds this summer. Carey also doesn’t appear to be an elite shot-blocking threat, and as mentioned above, Duke has historically been a team that avoids fouling at all costs (which could keep Azubuike away from the free throw line, where he’s not so good). If Azubuike stays away from whistles himself, I could envision 20-10-type production.

Last game prediction: Auburn 76, Kansas 70 (Actual: Auburn 89-75)

2018-19 record vs. spread: 22-14

Last five seasons’ record vs. spread: 99-76-3

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.