NEW YORK—The Blue Devils have had trouble finding a consistent identity to hang their hat on all season.

But one thing has become clear—Duke needs Amile Jefferson, whether he is 100 percent healthy or not—anchoring the team inside to be at its best. 

After missing the Blue Devils' regular season matchup with Louisville Jan. 14, Jefferson will be on the floor for No. 5 seed Duke when it takes on the fourth-seeded Cardinals Thursday at 2 p.m. at the Barclays Center in the second ACC tournament quarterfinal. Both the co-captain and Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski missed the teams' first matchup, in which Louisville center Anas Mahmoud poured in a career-high 17 points and 11 boards as the Cardinals overwhelmed Duke inside.

"We’re just different. It’s night and day. Coach wasn’t there when we played them there, we made a lot of changes, we grew up," Jefferson said after Wednesday's win against Clemson. "We’ve become more mature. We have a guy in Frank Jackson who’s not playing like a freshman anymore.... He’s playing like a man, and Jayson Tatum is doing the same thing, so we’re a completely different team."

If facing a physical Louisville team was not enough, the Blue Devils will have the added challenge of playing on consecutive days after going down to the wire in a 79-72 win against the Tigers. With the No. 10 Cardinals enjoying a double bye and entering the tournament with a chip on their shoulder after sitting out the postseason in 2016 due to self-imposed sanctions, Duke can expect to have its hands full in a game that has NCAA tournament seeding implications. 

But with their defensive leader on the court this time around, the 14th-ranked Blue Devils have reason to believe this matchup with Louisville could be different. Jefferson's numbers illustrate his value, as he has scored in double figures in five of his last six games and rebounded well against bigger frontcourt players—something he will need to do again Thursday against the second-best rebounding team in the conference. 

Freshmen Frank Jackson and Jayson Tatum have also stepped up late in the season for the Blue Devils (24-8). The rookies scored 20 points apiece against the Tigers and have stepped into more active roles offensively.

Both players struggled mightily in the first matchup against the Cardinals' physical pressure defense, shooting 4-of-16 with no assists and four turnovers in their third ACC road game. The tandem appears to have turned the corner in March, however, setting up an intriguing matchup against Louisville guards Donovan Mitchell and Quentin Snider and a deep Cardinal frontcourt.

"I know that wasn’t one of my best games of my freshman year. It was really tough for myself and some of the other guys, and we didn’t play that [well]," Tatum said. "We didn’t play that together, and they were better than us that day. They’re a really good team, great coach, they’re extremely big and [have] some great guards, so we’re looking [forward] to play them again."

One of the biggest changes from the first matchup will likely be how much Blue Devil junior Grayson Allen plays and what his role is on the court. In the January contest, Allen had one of his best games of the year, finishing with 23 points, nine rebounds and a season-high 12 free-throw attempts. 

But limited by an ankle injury late in the year, the All-American has taken a backseat to Jackson, going scoreless for the first time in almost two years Wednesday in a season-low 12 minutes.

"The injury is a huge part of it because he has not been able to really go after it in practice, and he's lost his timing, his rhythm," Krzyzewski said. "He took four shots, but the two [3-pointers] he took were right on target, but they were a little bit short. We've got to get him going."

Allen refused to use his injuries as an excuse after the contest, noting that he simply needs to perform better. The junior will likely need to provide some solid minutes against the Cardinals for his team to have a chance to win with Mitchell and Snider hounding Jackson and sophomore Luke Kennard in the backcourt. The top two playmakers for Louisville (24-7) are also capable of wearing Duke down on the other end of the court with their dribble penetration and activity off the ball.

A first-team All-ACC performer, Mitchell has a knack for taking control of games down the stretch as he did against the Blue Devils at home with consecutive 3-pointers in a game-deciding Cardinal run. With Snider fully recovered from a midseason injury and shooting 40.0 percent from beyond the arc, Louisville will look to continue attacking a Duke defense that struggled with foul trouble in the first half Wednesday. 

The Blue Devils will also have to pay attention to Mahmoud and frontcourt mates Mangok Mathiang, Jaylen Johnson and Ray Spalding cutting to the rim for paint points. Cardinal head coach Rick Pitino is almost certainly going to try to use his team's depth to decide the game again.

"Louisville really attacks you for the whole 40 minutes," Allen said. "That’s Coach Pitino’s style. We have to be prepared for that and really ready to handle their pressure the whole game. It’s going to be a physical game, and it’s also tournament time, so everything gets more physical."

With a semifinal berth and potential third matchup against North Carolina on the horizon if Duke can advance Thursday, the Blue Devils have one of their best opportunities to display a new identity against one of the nation's top teams. 

"We've told our guys, just play one game. Play one game, then play another game," Krzyzewski said. "Then if we're fortunate enough to play another game, then we'll try to figure it out."