Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s top-ranked Blue Devils (15-0, 2-0 in the ACC) have passed every major test so far this season.
Saturday’s showdown with No. 20 N.C. State (13-2, 2-0 in the ACC) presents a hurdle the Blue Devils have yet to clear this year: winning a true road game. So far all of Duke’s games away from Cameron Indoor Stadium have been neutral-site contests.
Making the tilt with its Triangle rival even more challenging, Duke will play without senior power forward Ryan Kelly, who is out indefinitely due to a foot injury.
“Ryan was one of our best players and one of the elite players in the country,” Duke associate head coach Chris Collins said. “It’s not going to be one guy that fills that void, especially the different things he brings to the table. We feel good about a committee of our young guys getting an opportunity to get out there and seeing what they can do.”
Reserve underclassmen Alex Murphy, Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson, as well as junior Josh Hairston will see increased roles against a talented opponent in a hostile arena. Making the short trip over to Raleigh, Duke will face the preseason favorite to win the ACC and a team with as much athletic firepower as any squad in the country, as well as a red and white sea of nearly 20,000 strong at PNC Arena Saturday afternoon.
“It’ll be a really good test,” Collins said. “We are going to rely on our veterans with Mason [Plumlee], Seth [Curry], Tyler [Thornton] and Josh [Hairston]. You can’t allow the crowd to fuel [N.C. State’s] energy. They are a good enough team as is. If we lose our poise, turn the ball over, allow them to get in the open court and make spectacular plays, the crowd becomes a bigger factor.”
The hype of the N.C. State faithful stems from the program’s resurgence under second-year head coach Mark Gottfried. The team’s turning point came at the end of last season when N.C. State’s performance began to match its potential, sparking a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament.
Gottfried then welcomed one of the top 2012 recruiting classes in the country—featuring McDonald’s All Americans Tyler Lewis, Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren—and forward C.J. Leslie, who announced he would pass up the NBA to return for his junior season. With the influx of talent, N.C. State—not Duke or North Carolina—garnered the most preseason headlines in the ACC.
Earlier this season, the Wolfpack failed to live up to the expectations, losing to Oklahoma State in a blowout and falling to then-No. 3 Michigan in a tightly contested game. Since its loss to the still-unbeaten Wolverines Nov. 27, Gottfried’s club has responded by winning nine games in a row, including signature victories against Stanford and Connecticut.
A balanced scoring attack is one of the biggest reasons the Wolfpack has been able to rebound from a tough November. Six players average double figures in scoring: Leslie, Purvis, Warren, point guard Lorenzo Brown, big man Richard Howell, and 3-point marksman Scott Wood.
Depth is perhaps the Wolfpack’s most vulnerable attribute. Aside from those six, backup point guard Lewis is the only other player that sees more than 10 minutes of action per game. The post, in particular, only has Leslie—an athletic 6-foot-9 hybrid forward with freakish leaping ability—and Howell—a bruising 6-foot-8, 257-pound center—in the rotation. The tandem collectively averages 28.3 points and 17.2 rebounds per contest, but the two are susceptible to foul trouble.
The backcourt is equally potent. Brown, a 6-foot-5 point guard, and Purvis are both high-caliber athletes, who love to get out on the fast break and attack the rim. Connecting on 43.3 percent of his 3-point attempts this year, Wood is a lethal shooter with a solid 6-foot-6 frame. Warren, a 6-foot-8 small forward and Durham native, is a versatile player that can score inside and out, and he is arguably the frontrunner at the moment to win ACC Rookie of the Year honors.
Slowing down an N.C. State team that averages 81.3 points per outing—the eighth-best output in the country—on the road could very well be the stiffest challenge to date for a shorthanded Duke team in what could be the most hostile environment on its entire schedule.
“They are a balanced team and a very talented team,” Collins said. “It’ll be a great place to play. We know we are going to have to play an outstanding game in order to beat them.”