CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 20: Aaron Craft #4, Jared Sullinger #0, Jon Diebler #33, William Buford #44 and David Lighty #23 of the Ohio State Buckeyes look on from the bench late in the second half against the George Mason Patriots during the third of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Quicken Loans Arena on March 20, 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The season's first game featuring two teams ranked in the top five could very well decide who is ranked No. 1 this time next week.
Tip Time: 9:35 pm. ET
Location: Value City Arena: Columbus, OH
Announcers: Dan Shulman (play-by-play) and Dick Vitale (analysis)
All-Time Series: Duke leads 3-2
Last Meeting: Duke won 91-76 in 2002
Favorite: Ohio State by 7.5
It's hard to believe that a matchup of the second and third-ranked teams in the country could sneak up on the college basketball public, but that's sort of what has happened here.
For so long, so much attention has been focused on Saturday's Kentucky/North Carolina game that this has almost felt like an undercard clash since before the season even started. But if the once-beaten Tar Heels can knock off top-ranked Wildcats this weekend, the winner of Tuesday night's showdown will very likely be the new No. 1 team in the country this time next week.
Duke enters this game in the unfamiliar role of November underdog. In fact, the Blue Devils haven't lost in November since the 2006 CBE Classic title game, a streak of 35-consecutive victories.
Second-ranked Ohio State is favored with good reason, though. The Buckeyes are led by player of the year favorite Jared Sullinger and appear more talented and better-suited to make a run at the national championship than the squad which spent the bulk of last season ranked No. 1. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Sullinger (18.8 points, 10.7 rebounds) has slimmed down considerably and made himself more multi-dimensional. A bolstered supporting cast also deserves a substantial amount of credit. Returning starters Aaron Craft (5.5 assists, 3.5 steals) and William Buford (17.7 points) appear much improved, and sophomore Deshaun Thomas (12.3 ppg) has flourished in a larger role.
Though the Buckeyes are beating opponents by an average of more than 30 points per game, they have yet to leave the comforts of Columbus and haven't faced a true test outside of a seven-point win over Florida on Nov. 15. The same can't be said for Duke, which is coming off its fifth Maui Invitational title and will be facing its third ranked opponent in as many games.
The weakness of this Blue Devil team was supposed to be its lack of post presence, but those concerns have been alleviated by the play of junior Mason Plumlee. Showcasing a toughness that had been absent from his first two collegiate seasons, Plumlee is averaging a double-double at 11.4 ppg and 10.0. Most notably, he more than held his own against talented Kansas big man Thomas Robinson in the Maui title game, scoring 17 points and snatching 12 rebounds in Duke's 68-61 win. Obviously, his play will again be a major point of focus on Tuesday night with Sullinger suiting up for the opposing squad.
Duke figures to have its strongest advantage on the perimeter, where the Blue Devils are ninth in the nation in three-point shooting (52%). Seth Curry (15.1 ppg) is the team's leading scorer and most lethal outside threat. Ryan Kelly (14.6 ppg) and Andre Dawkins (10.1 ppg) are also both shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc. The game's X-Factor might be freshman Austin Rivers, who ranks third on the team in scoring at 14.4 ppg, but has yet to have that true breakout game that many were - rightly or wrongly - figuring would be a nightly occurrence.
What each team needs to win tonight might also be the same thing each needs in order to claim a national championship. Duke must get a surprisingly strong performance in the post, be it from Plumlee or someone else. Ohio State will need someone other than Sullinger to give a healthy contribution on offense.
Prediction: Ohio State 77, Duke 71
This is the night the Buckeyes erase any doubt as to whether or not they're a true national title contender.