Despite losing expected starters Luol Deng and Shaun Livingston to the NBA, Duke has managed to accumulate a 16-1 record and a share of first place in the ACC, the most competitive conference in the country. But the real fun for the Blue Devils has not yet begun.
In its first 17 games, the men’s basketball team only competed in one top-25 matchup, an 81-74 win over then-No. 11 Michigan State. Oklahoma, N.C. State, Virginia and Maryland have also been ranked at times this season, but those schools were not included in the Associated Press poll when each played Duke.
In contrast, seven of the Blue Devils’ next 10 games will be against a team featured in the current rankings. Although Duke’s nearly perfect record in its first 17 games will not hurt its standing with the NCAA Selection Committee, how the Blue Devils perform in the next month will be a larger determinant of its seed in the NCAA Tournament than any of the games it has already played.
Duke enters the most difficult 10-game stretch of its schedule with the most arduous three-game stretch of the season. The team travels to Winston-Salem tonight and takes on Georgia Tech at home this Saturday before matching up with North Carolina, the most explosive team in the country, Feb. 9.
In order to weather the coming storm, the Blue Devils must play one of their best games of the season tonight at Wake. There are a number of factors that predict a solid Duke showing. The Blue Devils have won 15 of the last 17 matchups with the Demon Deacons. Duke is also scoring better on the road, shooting 55 percent away from Cameron and 44 percent in front of the Crazies.
But head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad has dropped its last two games in Lawrence Joel Coliseum, and the No. 7 Demon Deacons have played their best basketball against their most elite competition at home. Wake Forest downed then-No. 14 Texas 89-88 Dec. 18 and defeated North Carolina in a surprisingly easy 95-82 victory Jan. 15. The Demon Deacons’ best three players—Chris Paul, Justin Gray and Eric Williams—also match up favorably with Duke’s top trio of J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing and Shelden Williams—and Wake Forest gets solid production from its bench.
For the Blue Devils to overcome these tough obstacles, they need an a career performance from one of their role players: junior Lee Melchionni. The 6-foot-6 forward is averaging just 6.8 points per game this season, but he has knocked in 12 points a contest in three ACC road games, including a well-timed career-high 16 against N.C. State. Melchionni’s improved play is arguably the main reason the Blue Devils have remained a top-5 team despite losing so much talent to the NBA. Redick, Ewing and Williams have slightly exceeded their individual expectations, but Melchionni is the only Duke player who has clearly performed at a higher level than most predicted.
When Melchionni brings in a solid performance, it opens up things for Duke’s stars. Wake Forest has the type of firepower to lock down three solid players at once. But if Melchionni starts to find his stroke, stopping Redick, Ewing and Williams becomes almost impossible. When Melchionni began to score from the outside Jan. 19 against Miami, the Hurricanes, despite featuring a pair of athletic big-men, had no chance of stopping Williams. The Landlord went on to score a career-high 30 points that night.
“Because we have two outstanding perimeter guys [Ewing and Redick] ourselves and because Lee is such a good shooter, it’s tough to double-team Shelden,” Krzyzewski said after a 92-83 win at Miami. “That’s an advantage for us. A lot of times he was one-on-one. He showed a lot of poise tonight and made some big-time moves.”
Whether Duke’s three stars struggle to get their points or consistently make “big-time moves” revolves largely around the play of an X-Factor like Melchionni. If Melchionni can step up on the road once again—or if another player, like Sean Dockery, can find the hot hand—Duke should finish these next 10 games in position to obtain a No. 1 or 2 seed in the tournament. If it cannot, the Blue Devils should expect the No. 5 seed many predicted for the team in the preseason.
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