The Blue Devils needed a stellar second half from Luke Kennard to escape with their first true road win of the season Saturday, but they might need a little more luck to climb back above .500 in ACC play.
And they have a familiar foe standing in their path.
No. 21 Duke will travel to South Bend, Ind., to take on No. 20 Notre Dame Monday at 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion. The Fighting Irish have had the Blue Devils’ number as of late, compiling a 4-1 record against Duke in the last two seasons, including victories in the last two ACC tournaments.
But after racing out to a 5-0 start in conference play this year, Notre Dame has dropped three of its last four contests—including a last-second defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech Saturday. Kennard’s heroics were all that kept the Blue Devils from limping into Monday’s tilt having lost four of their last five, and Duke is hoping it can carry that momentum as it starts to get into the meat of its ACC slate.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity this year and to come back and have a big win like we did today is huge for us,” Kennard said after Saturday’s 85-83 win against Wake Forest. “It can be a little momentum for us going into the next few games and we’re excited about it. We’re going to enjoy it right now. We have a tough game on Monday and we’ll be ready to go.”
Recent battles between the Blue Devils and the Fighting Irish have had plenty of offensive firepower, and Monday night figures to be no different as both teams trot out questionable defenses but are in the top five in the league in offensive efficiency per basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy.
Although Duke (16-5, 4-4 in the ACC) has relied predominantly on Kennard, junior Grayson Allen and freshman Jayson Tatum to initiate offense, Notre Dame (17-5, 6-3) features a balanced attack with four players averaging between 14.0 and 15.5 points per game and several different players capable of shouldering the scoring load on any given night.
Junior Matt Farrell has stepped in nicely at the point guard spot to fill the shoes of Demetrius Jackson, averaging 5.6 assists per game and facilitating the Fighting Irish offense with smooth ball movement. Veterans Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem and Bonzie Colson—who has enjoyed a few big games against the Blue Devils in recent years—flank Farrell in the starting lineup, and should challenge a Duke defense that has allowed opposing offenses to flourish in the past few weeks, particularly in the lane and in transition.
“We need to get better on the defensive end. We can be a highly-productive offensive team, but we have to be able to play defense,” graduate student Amile Jefferson said. “We have to be able to do it on both ends and that starts with our leadership making sure guys are in the right place. And defense is want-to thing, so the more we want to do it, the more we want to get stops, we will.”
After nearly every rotation player was plagued by foul trouble against the Demon Deacons, the Blue Devils will need to be more disciplined against a Notre Dame team that leads the nation with an 81.5 percent mark from the free throw stripe. Head coach Mike Brey often likes to play a smaller lineup and spread the floor with shooters—the Fighting Irish lead the ACC from beyond the arc at 40.2 percent—giving Farrell a bevy of threats he can distribute to.
But despite its struggles defending off the dribble, Duke has excelled at defending the 3-point line—where opponents are shooting just 30.5 percent—something it will need to continue doing to pull off the road win.
Colson, who stands just 6-foot-5, leads the ACC in rebounding with 10.6 boards per contest, and often serves as its lone post threat with 6-foot-10 forward Martinas Geben averaging only 15.6 minutes per game. With the Blue Devils likely facing an undersized but dynamic Fighting Irish lineup, interim head coach Jeff Capel could also opt for a smaller lineup with the 6-foot-8 Tatum at the four and some combination of Jefferson and freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden down low.
With three of its next five games against ranked competition, Duke has an opportunity to start collecting resume-defining wins as it tries to separate itself from a cluster of ACC teams hovering around .500 in league play—it will try to use Saturday’s come-from-behind victory as a springboard to do so.
“I think all our games throughout the year are important. Not one game is more important than any other,” Jefferson said. “They all count as one, so this one is one and it’s a huge one for us—it’s a big one for us—but we have a quick turnaround. We go play a really good Notre Dame team in 48 hours.”
Hank Tucker and Jack Dolgin contributed reporting.