Duke’s only two losses of the season came on neutral courts to a then-No. 5 Kansas team featuring phenom Andrew Wiggins and an athletic Arizona squad now ranked No. 1.
UCLA may not have the star power or hype of those two teams, but when the Bruins challenge the No. 8 Blue Devils at Madison Square Garden Thursday night at 7:30 p.m., they will give Duke’s inconsistent defense perhaps its toughest task of the season.
“They may be the most explosive offensive team we’ve played,” Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “They’re underrated nationally, but they’re certainly going to be one of the teams that has a chance at the end of the year.”
UCLA (9-1) ranks near the top nationally in almost every offensive category with 89.1 points per game (third), 18.9 assists per game (third) while shooting 54.3 percent from the field (second). The Bruins' lone defeat came two games ago to Missouri, when they were held below 80 points for just the second time all season.
Sophomore guard Jordan Adams leads the offense with 21.2 points per game and is one of four players averaging double-digit points for head coach Steve Alford in his first year on the job.
“They have multiple guys who can have 25- to 30-point games,” Wojciechowski said.
Though Adams is the most productive player, Kyle Anderson may be the most difficult to matchup against. At 6-foot-9, the sophomore often plays on the perimeter as a “point forward,” Wojciechowski said, with the size of a post player but the mind of a point guard.
He helps push the pace of the Bruin offense that ranks 34th nationally in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom.com, faster than any opponent Duke has faced this season. The Blue Devils rank 59th in tempo.
“All of their guys thrive in transition,” Wojciechowski said.
Duke (8-2) had one of its best defensive performances of the season prior to its hiatus for final exams against then-No. 22 Michigan, holding the Wolverines to 69 points and star guard Nik Stauskas without a field goal.
Wojciechowski noted the team has to return to playing defense the way it was before the exam period after the team’s return to action Monday against Gardner-Webb, a 85-66 victory. After the win, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said communication on the defensive end was “lacking sometimes.”
Like the Bruins, the Blue Devils have one of the country's most effective offenses with 86.0 points per game on a 51.7 percent clip, which ranks sixth in the nation. In order to ease the burden of the defense, the offense has to play mistake-free basketball to limit the Bruins’ opportunities.
“In order to have a good transition defense, your offense has to help your defense—taking good shots and not turning the ball gives you more of an opportunity to set the defense,” Wojciechowski said.
Freshman Jabari Parker paces Duke on offense with 22.0 points and his 7.6 rebounds per game may be just as important, with the Bruins getting outrebounded by 17 in their loss to Missouri.
Even when Gardner-Webb often turned to a smaller lineup against the Blue Devils, Krzyzewski found a way to get rebounders on to the floor with reserves Marshall Plumlee and Semi Ojeleye getting time. Sophomore Amile Jefferson, who has ceded his starting role to Josh Hairston, also had one of his best games on the glass against the Runnin’ Bulldogs with 10 rebounds in 12 minutes.
This game marks Duke’s final high-profile non-conference test before beginning conference play Jan. 4 against Notre Dame.
It is the program’s third trip to New York City this season, after heading up before the season started and also playing the NIT Season Tip-Off in November. Madison Square Garden will host the East Regional of the 2014 NCAA tournament.
“For our young team, as we’re growing these are great opportunities to see where we are and get a gauge of what we need to do better and what we’re doing well," Wojciechowski said. “We’ve been to New York a lot this year. I hope that works to our advantage.”