Every possession is coveted on the road. ACC teams will get up from a punch and throw one of their own. Winning a road conference game takes a total team effort.
The No. 16 Blue Devils will try to use these lessons as a recipe for success Saturday at 2 p.m., when Duke heads back onto the road to face Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum. Playing their first road game since an upset loss in South Bend Jan. 4, the Blue Devils are still learning the keys to winning in the ACC's most hostile environments.
“We just didn’t play well, plain and simple, and Notre Dame played better," Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said. "And even with that, we were still in a position where we had a chance to win the game. If anything, I think it shows our guys is just how tough wins are in this league, especially on the road."
Most road wins will also require a solid performance from a team's superstar. Playing the first ACC game and first true road game of his career, Jabari Parker looked like a freshman against the Fighting Irish, finishing with seven points—his first single-digit scoring performance in a Duke uniform—on 2-of-10 shooting. He was better Tuesday against Georgia Tech but still finished 4-of-12 from the field.
Through his first 12 games, Parker was shooting a blistering 51.9 percent from the field. But in the last three contests, he's just 11-for-35, or 31.4 percent. The best medicine for a struggling shooter is often times just to see the ball go in the basket early in a game. But Capel said Duke (12-3, 1-1 in the ACC) won't adjust the play-calling up to get Parker some easy, open shots early—they do that already. “The big thing is moving on," Capel said. "He’s a kid who has been through adversity with the game before. Last year as a senior in high school he was coming off of a serious injury and his first couple games back, he didn’t play well. He took some time and got himself completely healthy, got himself in better shape, and he came back and finished the year very strong.... We have no doubts that he’ll be fine."
"That is the regular flow of the offense, is to try and get him involved early and to get opportunities for him," Capel said. "He’s a guy with versatility that you can do a lot for. He’s a huge impact on what we do, so it’s not going to be anything done that we’ve done differently. In any game this year, him and Rodney are our guys offensively that we go to."
If Parker is to break out of his recent funk Saturday, it will have to come against a stingy Clemson defense. The Tigers (10-4, 1-1) rank first in the nation in points per game allowed, second in field-goal percentage, eighth in blocked shots and third in opposing field-goal percentage. To top it off, Clemson commits the 13th-fewest fouls in the country.
“It’s a physical defense, it’s a defense that really protects the paint. Obviously, they guard the 3-point line," Capel said. "They have good ball pressure. It’s a very good defense, and those kids play the heck out of it."
Although Clemson achieves its defensive success primarily by playing man-to-man, Capel said the Blue Devils were also prepared to face the zone defense the Tigers have featured at times. Teams like East Carolina and Vermont were able to force Duke to spread the floor by playing zone, controlling the paint and keeping the game competitive. Recently, though, the Blue Devils have figured out how to slice apart the zone.
"Teams have zoned us a lot this year, really more than any Duke team in recent memory," Capel said. "We think we've become pretty good at attacking the zone. Obviously, you saw a little bit more [zone] earlier in the year and we were not as good."
The Tigers have yet to allow 75 points in a game this season but have had some struggles of their own scoring the basketball, managing just 68.6 points per game. Clemson's do-it-all leader is junior forward K.J. McDaniels, who averages 16.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
At just 6-foot-6, McDaniels is also blocking 2.9 shots per contest, and could present a potential matchup problem for Duke—too fast to be guarded by a forward, but too long to be defended by a guard. Capel said the key to slowing McDaniels, who he called, "one of the most athletic guys in our conference and in college basketball," is to ensure that everyone in a Duke jersey is aware of his presence.
"He can score the basketball in a variety of different ways—he can shoot it from behind the arc, he’s a good mid-range player, he’s great in transition and finishing, and they can put him in the post," Capel said. "He’s a tremendous offensive rebounder, so we have to be aware of him in every area. We can’t allow him to get dunks or easy baskets in transition. We cannot allow him to get threes, we have to put pressure and keep him out of our paint, and then we have to block him out."