THE CONTENTS: Another Wednesday, another road tilt with a top-10 team. No. 4 Duke, down three spots after its loss to Wake Forest, travels southwest to Littlejohn Coliseum to take on No. 10 Clemson at 9 p.m. You can see the game on ESPN with Mike Patrick, Jay Bilas and Heather Cox or hear it locally on 620 AM.
If that's not enough media exposure, pull up this very blog to read the rapid-fire thoughts and witticisms of yours truly, courtside at Littlejohn.
THE EXPOSITION: The Blue Devils (19-2, 6-1) bounced back from their last-second loss to the Demon Deacons witha just-as-easy-as-expected dismissal of Virginia Sunday afternoon. The defense suffocated the Cavaliers into 17 first-half turnovers in building a 22-point intermission lead, and Duke was in cruise control the rest of the way.
The Tigers (18-2, 4-2) got a big come-from-behind road win in their last outing last Thursday, beating Virginia Tech 86-82 after trailing by 15 in the second half. As usual, there wasn't a ton of heft in Clemson's non-conference schedule (best wins coming at Illinois and at South Carolina, which both look better now than they did at the time), and the Tigers' only two losses this season are to No. 3 North Carolina and No. 7 Wake Forest.
Duke leads the all-time series 100-28 against Clemson. The Blue Devils, though, are just 22-16 at Littlejohn Coliseum, including nine in a row. Duke had won 22 straight in the series, but the Tigers took the last meeting, a 78-74 victory in the semifinals of last year's ACC Tournament.
THE PROTAGONISTS: Same old, same old last game for Duke, which was led by Gerald Henderson's 16 first-half points and a swarming defense to blow by Virginia. It seems safe to say at this point that Henderson has made the leap, and the Blue Devils can expect his production to continue at a clip more consistent with his ACC play than his non-conference performance. The same can be said for the defense, which has now held six of seven ACC opponents below 60 points.
That being said, Clemson isn't Virginia or N.C. State or even Virginia Tech. Duke won't be handed easy turnovers (hey, Dave Leitao, how about recruiting a point guard?) and will be punished for its defensive lapses far more frequently Wednesday night than they were on Sunday (Sylven Landesburg is essentially the Cavaliers' only talented scorer). Brian Zoubek is going to need to show up in the middle against the smaller but more refined Trevor Booker and the bigger but rawer Raymond Sykes. It's going to be a tough night for Kyle Singler on the block, and expect Lance Thomas and David McClure to once again show off their defensive versatility.
Offensively, this will probably be Nolan Smith's biggest test as the Blue Devils' starting point guard. The Tigers still employ their full-court pressure, now headed on the baseline by Sykes. If Smith can move the ball crisply in the backcourt (i.e. via the pass and not the dribble), it should lead to open looks on the other end for Duke's scorers. Smith is coming off his best game of the season against Virginia, when his offensive aggressiveness opened up the floor for Henderson and Co. throughout the game. Against Clemson, his task is simpler but more difficult: just protect the ball.
THE ANTAGONISTS: Cliff Hammonds and James Mays may be gone, but a lot of the faces in white and orange will be familiar. Sophomores Demontez Stitt and three-point sharpshooter Terrence Oglesby occupy the backcourt along with the Tigers' best all-around scorer, K.C. Rivers.
Booker has had some big games in the post against Duke (18 and 7 on 9-of-11 shooting in the last meeting), but that was playing along with Mays. Sykes is much less polished, and Clemson doesn't ever really run the offense through the senior.
The Tigers are still a team defined by their pressure defense, which helps them overcome poor play in lightning fast spurts. Clemson is never out of a game because its defense can create turnovers en masse to get it points quickly. Against Wake Forest, the Tigers ran off 10 points in just over a minute to cut an 11-point deficit to one. That means Smith, who has a tendency to occasionally lose focus, can't do that Wednesday night.
THE CONFLICT: Can Duke handle Clemson's pressure defense? If so, the Blue Devils will make the Tigers pay with easy baskets, and Clemson won't be able to hit enough threes to catch up.
Additionally, how does Duke guard Trevor Booker? And who does Trevor Booker guard on Duke?
TIM'S FAVORITE PLAYER IN CLEMSON HISTORY IS...: I may not have known he was a Clemson alum at the time, but for some reason, I kinda liked Elden Campbell when he was on the Lakers. A close winner over Terrell McIntyre.
WHY DOES TIM REMEMBER THE TERRELL McINTYRE ERA?: Because in his picks for the 1998 NCAA Tournament, Tim unknowingly picked Clemson as one of the teams he expected to make an all-ACC Final Four (along with Duke, North Carolina and Maryland). It didn't work out, however, as the Tigers lost in the first round to Eastern Michigan. For the record, Duke blew a huge lead to eventual national champion Kentucky in the Regional Final, and Maryland lost to top-seed Arizona in the Sweet 16. UNC got to the Final Four before bowing out to Utah.
SO THAT MEANS CLEMSON HASN'T WON AN NCAA TOURNAMENT GAME SINCE...?: 1997, when Rick Barnes led them to a second-round win over fifth-seeded Tulsa.
DO THE BASKETBALL PLAYERS TOUCH THE ROCK, TOO?: Good question. I don't know for sure, but I doubt it.
Along the same lines, is there a "Play like a champion today" sign in the Notre Dame basketball locker room? So many questions.
WHAT IS TIM'S CHIEF SUPERSTITION GOING INTO THIS GAME?: Duke's road record in ACC games Tim doesn't cover for The Chronicle: 18-4. Duke's road record in ACC games Tim covers for The Chronicle: 1-4.
Sixth time's the charm!
(Again for the record, losses at Georgia Tech and North Carolina in 2007, Wake Forest in 2008 and 2009. Win at Maryland in 2008.)
THE DENOUEMENT: Clemson has played Duke closely the last few seasons, but it's been the big guys on the post who have done the damage--not the full-court press. Booker and Mays dominated the Blue Devils in the paint in the ACC Tournament to the tune of 34 points and 11 rebounds on 14-of-18 shooting. On the flip side, the Blue Devils' starting forwards in that game, Kyle Singler and Lance Thomas, had 2 points and 4 rebounds on 1-of-9 shooting.
I think it's time for payback. It was almost certainly Singler's worst game in college, and the surest sign of his fatigue down the stretch of last season. It's going to be tough for him to check Booker defensively (indeed, we may see him on Sykes, who does a lot of the perimeter screening, most of the night; Thomas, Zoubek and McClure can take Booker), but it's tougher to figure out who on the Tigers can match up with Singler. Oglesby's going to have a hard enough time on Jon Scheyer (IF the junior can shoot the way he did against UVa), and so Clemson's help defense will already be strained. That's why I think as long as Nolan Smith handles the full-court pressure with poise, the Tigers can't check the Blue Devils defensively.
On the other end, Duke probably allows its highest point total in ACC play, but even that's not enough for Clemson.
THE VERDICT: Duke 83-74.
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