Typically, college basketball teams are not battle-tested until they finish the heart of their conference schedule. The No. 2 Blue Devils (6-0)—who already own hard-fought wins over No. 8 Kentucky, No. 21 Minnesota, VCU and No. 5 Louisville—are well ahead of the curve though in the opening month of the 2012-13 season.
With limited rest following the team’s first-place finish last week at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, the schedule does not lighten up. Duke’s final test of its November gauntlet takes place Wednesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium against No. 4 Ohio State (4-0) in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge.
“To me it’s easy to get up for these games,” Duke senior co-captain Mason Plumlee said. “And I think that this is a team that loves these kind of games, judging by how we’ve played so far this season.”
The Blue Devils will need that added energy—something they lacked against Ohio State last year—as they attempt to beat a third 2012 Final Four squad. After winning the Maui Invitational last November and making the cross-country trek there and back, Duke had short turnaround time for its trip to Columbus, Ohio on the following Tuesday. Consequently, fatigue played a significant role in the Blue Devils’ 85-63 dismantling at the hands of the Buckeyes.
“We got blown out,” Plumlee said. “We didn’t compete and we didn’t even play hard. It set us back.”
In this year’s rematch, the element of revenge, to some degree, will serve as added motivation for Duke.
WATCH: Looking back at the Bahamas and the matchups vs. Ohio State
“To be frank, yes. I think so,” Duke senior power forward Ryan Kelly said, with regards to there being extra fire for this game. “It’s hard not to have some bad memories. Everyday we have got to have something to prove. We’ve had an unbelievable schedule. We’ve been put in a position where we have to compete every single day with the teams we are playing against.”
Despite the advantages of playing at home, the limited recovery period will again be a factor this year, especially for Duke senior shooting guard Seth Curry, who continues to play through a lingering lower leg injury but is forced to miss practices on a weekly basis.
“I don’t think [my leg] is all the way back,” Curry said. “It definitely feels better [than it did during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament].”
Unlike Duke, the Buckeyes come to Cameron Indoor Stadium without having been pushed yet this year. A 77-66 victory over a middle-of-the-road Washington team from a suspect Pac-12 conference is Ohio State’s best victory to date.
The nucleus of head coach Thad Matta’s squad is a bit different from last year. Forward William Buford and All-American big man Jared Sullinger—who combined to average 32 points per contest last season—are gone. In their absence, forward Deshaun Thomas has filled much of the void offensively this year. Easily the team’s most potent offensive weapon, the 6-foot-7 inside-outside threat is off to a remarkably hot start in his junior campaign, averaging 24.0 points per game—the sixth-best scoring average in the country—and 7.3 rebounds per game.
Coming off the best three-game stretch of his career and an MVP performance in the Bahamas, Duke sophomore point guard Quinn Cook will face one of his toughest matchups of the year—Ohio State floor general Aaron Craft. Improving his scoring capabilities since last year, the 6-foot-2 junior point guard is the catalyst of the Buckeyes’ offense—averaging 14.3 points per game and 5.3 assists—and is one of the peskiest on-ball defenders in the country.
“[Craft] is definitely a great defensive player,” Duke junior guard Tyler Thornton said. “He puts on a lot of ball pressure and plays passing lanes very well. He controls his team very well.”
Netting 11.5 points per game as a starter, Ohio State’s Lenzelle Smith—a 6-foot-4 junior guard—has demonstrated an ability to score too. And lanky forward LaQuinton Ross—who is Duke sophomore Rodney Hood’s friend and former AAU teammate in high school—and guard Shannon Scott are both gifted athletes that are capable of tallying double-digit scoring outputs off the bench.
With the emergence of Cook as a competent distributor and lead guard, the Blue Devils enter the contest playing at a high level—all five starters are averaging double figures. The team has already seemingly established roles for each individual on the team too.
“I think we’re so balanced,” Plumlee said. “There are times you’d grab the box score after the game, we’d have five guys in double figures, which is great. To me, those are always the hardest teams to defend.”
To beat a third top-10 foe for a third straight week, the Blue Devils cannot afford to be complacent with what they have accomplished in the early going.
“Obviously, we did some good things in the Bahamas, but that can’t be where it ends,” Kelly said. “We have to take the good things, drop any bad things and get better in the areas we need to get better in. And move on to the next thing, and our next step is Ohio State.”