Red-hot Duke men's basketball side aims for historic ACC tournament title against familiar foe Notre Dame
NEW YORK—As head coach Mike Krzyzewski's team transformed into the hyper-athletic, versatile matchup nightmare many envisioned entering the season in Friday's second half, it seemed like Duke had found its niche in in Brooklyn.
Barely more than two days earlier, Krzyzewski had explained who he wanted the Blue Devils to become.
With Amile Jefferson in foul trouble, the Blue Devils finally got the big-time bench contributions inside they have been yearning for all season.
"I always see the offense coming together if Luke [Kennard] shoots the ball. We have four really good scorers. He and Jayson [Tatum] can really score the ball, but Frank [Jackson] can score, and so can Grayson [Allen]," Krzyzewski said after Duke's 79-72 win against Clemson Wednesday. "If we ever get all four of them going—that's who I would like to be."
It seems like the Blue Devils are already there heading into Saturday night's ACC championship game—that's a scary thought for the rest of the college basketball world.
Fifth-seeded Duke will look to complete the most impressive conference tournament run in recent memory by becoming the first ACC team to ever win four games in four days when it takes on No. 3 seed Notre Dame Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Barclays Center. The Blue Devils came to New York with one top-10 win this season and now have three. After dominating top-seeded North Carolina in the second half thanks to a 33-11 blitz, Duke has a chance to capture its first conference tournament title since 2011.
But fans thinking the No. 14 Blue Devils already completed the hardest part of the journey might be mistaken. Although Duke knocked off the Fighting Irish by 10 on the road in January, Notre Dame has looked extremely impressive this week as well. The 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish built double-digit leads on No. 21 Virginia and No. 16 Florida State, and are also firing on all cylinders offensively as they eye a second ACC tournament banner in three years. Notre Dame eliminated the Blue Devils from the league tournament in 2015 and 2016.
So as they into another battle, the Blue Devils will need the same urgency that led to them flipping a switch no one knew they had Thursday and Friday.
Luke Kennard and company will look to win the 3-point battle against one of the best shooting teams in America.
Jayson Tatum has played like one of the best players in the nation so far in Brooklyn, averaging 23.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski is seeking his 14th ACC tournament title and first since 2011.
Grayson Allen looks as healthy as he has all season heading into the ACC title game.
"We have, what, two more guaranteed after this—tomorrow and our first-round game," Jackson said. "So we’re at crunch time, we’re battling to the end and we want to win every game we play."
Although Duke's top three scorers in Kennard, Tatum and Allen spear-headed the Blue Devils' emotional 93-83 win Friday, Jackson's huge second half sent Duke to a level of offensive efficiency they have not yet reached this season.
The Blue Devils (26-8) scored 51 points after halftime, shooting 59.1 percent and taking advantage of open looks from beyond the arc as it stayed steady at the free throw line to close out the game.
The Fighting Irish (25-8) are no stranger to knocking down open looks—Notre Dame leads the nation in free throw percentage and is one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country at almost 39 percent.
Head coach Mike Brey surrounds first-team All-ACC forward Bonzie Colson with a bevy of knockdown shooters—wings V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia and point guard Matt Farrell all average at least 13.5 points per contest and have each made more than 50 triples this season. Even with Beachem, who led the team with 20 points when Duke prevailed 84-74 Jan. 30, shooting 2-of-9 Friday, Notre Dame got three triples off the bench from reserve sharpshooter Matt Ryan.
Luckily for the Blue Devils, they have been one of the nation's top 3-point shooting defenses this season. Entering Friday, the team was holding opponents to 30.0 percent beyond the arc—good for seventh in the nation—meaning whichever team can win the battle from 3-point land Saturday will gain a significant advantage.
"They're accustomed to how people get [3-pointers]. That's their territory," Krzyzewski said of his team's perimeter defense Friday. "They know how to score from it, and they know how to defend it. You are who you are.... We can't defend inside as well, but on the perimeter, we have really good players."
In Duke's regular-season win at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish went just 7-of-21 from 3-point range. The difference up front for the Blue Devils was Tatum, who posted a monster double-double with 19 points and 14 rebounds. The swingman has elevated his game in the postseason so far, averaging 23.0 points and 7.3 boards per game.
Although Tatum and graduate student Amile Jefferson will likely see the most time on Colson—who has scored at least 18 points in five straight games—freshman Harry Giles will almost certainly get a chance to leave his mark again after his impact Friday.
The 6-foot-10 forward had a spring in his step, blocking four shots in the second half and energizing his teammates in a way he had not yet done this season. Another strong effort Saturday could give Giles and the rest of the Blue Devils even more confidence that they have what it takes to advance to the Final Four, as relying on Giles in crunch time as part of a seven-man rotation is not a luxury Duke had at the start of the week.
"We’ve got some confidence. Now we just see how good we are and how good we can be," Giles said.
And when asked about potential fatigue setting in if the Blue Devils get off to a fourth straight slow start, Duke was quick to point out how it has dug deep three days in a row and been the fresher-looking team in all three contests.
The Blue Devils are enjoying their moment in New York, and only have one thought heading into Saturday—keeping their hot streak going.
"I don’t see anybody wanting to kill that momentum, not with fatigue, not with anything else," senior Matt Jones said. "You look around, there’s 18 year-olds here. It’s fun. Guys are all smiles."