Backcourts brace for battle in ACC/Big Ten Challenge

<p>Grayson Allen has gotten off to a strong court in the Duke backcourt this year, but will have to contend with Indiana’s talented starting duo of James Blackmon Jr. and Yogi Ferrell Wednesday.</p>

Grayson Allen has gotten off to a strong court in the Duke backcourt this year, but will have to contend with Indiana’s talented starting duo of James Blackmon Jr. and Yogi Ferrell Wednesday.

Each of the past three years, the Blue Devils have made an early-season statement with a big win against a ranked opponent coming off of a Final Four appearance in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Two losses last week by Indiana will force that streak to end, but senior Amile Jefferson would still like to make it a perfect 4-for-4 in his last go-around.

No. 7 Duke plays host to the Hoosiers at 9:15 p.m. Wednesday at Cameron Indoor Stadium as one of the final matchups in the three-day inter-conference battle. Since the inception of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge 17 years ago, the Blue Devils have posted a 14-2 record—the best mark of any team in either conference.

Last year, freshman Tyus Jones’ 22 points sparked Duke to an upset victory on the road against then-No. 2 Wisconsin, setting the stage for a special season. But this time, the Blue Devils will look to their upperclassmen for production under the bright lights, led by Jefferson, who has nearly doubled his production from a year ago and is averaging a double-double this season.

“A guy that’s been really good for us, been really consistent all year long, is Amile Jefferson,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said during his radio show Monday. “He can be a big key because he gives us the ability to switch a lot of ball screens. That’s going to be key, because he’s the guy that can be on multiple guys. Offensively, you saw against Utah State, he showed when we get him the ball down there he can score and he’ll have an opportunity, we feel like, to do that again Wednesday night against Indiana.”

Although Duke (6-1) is riding a four-game winning streak and coming off one of its most complete performances of the season Sunday against Utah State, Indiana (5-2) limps into Durham after a rough Thanksgiving at the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. The Hoosiers dropped a pair of games to unranked opponents—falling by four to Wake Forest in their opening game before losing by three to UNLV later in the tournament—and committed a combined 35 turnovers in the defeats.

Indiana got back on track Monday with a resounding 112-70 victory against Alcorn State and remains a veteran team loaded with offensive firepower. Head coach Tom Crean’s squad returns a pair of All-Big Ten guards in the backcourt in senior Yogi Ferrell and sophomore James Blackmon Jr. to lead a high-octane offense that is averaging 88.3 points per game and boasts four double-digit scorers. The strength of this Hoosier team is its perimeter play, but freshman center Thomas Bryant has stepped into the starting lineup to provide a strong interior presence with 12.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.

Despite his slight 6-foot, one-inch, 180-pound stature, Ferrell is tied with Bryant for the team lead in rebounding to go along with his 15.0 points and team-leading 6.7 assists per contest. A 41.6 percent shooter from beyond the arc a year ago, Ferrell has continued to be a dangerous scoring threat while setting up his teammates for plenty of open looks—Indiana is averaging more than 11 treys per game and hitting from deep at a 45 percent clip.

“Transition defense is going to be huge. Indiana really, really pushes the ball, and they attack. They have two or three guys that can push the break and lead the break and get out in transition,” Capel said. “They’re older, they can really shoot the ball, they’re really good offensively—explosive. It’ll be a big challenge for us.”

For the Blue Devils, Wednesday represents another chance to pick up a win against a marquee opponent and further distance themselves from their lone loss of the year against new No. 1 Kentucky. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski is still fiddling with his starting lineup and has varied his defensive schemes more than usual, including deploying a 1-3-1 zone against perimeter-oriented opponents.

Duke will need its trio of freshmen guards—Brandon Ingram, Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton—to hold their own on both ends of the floor against the Hoosiers’ experienced backcourt if it hopes to push its winning streak to five. After a slow start to begin the year, Kennard exploded for 22 points against the Aggies Sunday on 4-of-5 shooting from downtown as the Franklin, Ohio, native showed off the smooth lefty stroke that made him a prolific scorer in high school.

Capel noted that both Ingram and Thornton have shown flashes of their elite talent thus far, but are still very much in the process of adjusting to the college game. The 6-foot-9 Ingram has started to rebound after a sluggish start to the year and made his way back into the starting lineup Sunday. After three straight starts, Thornton came off the bench and had one of his worst games yet—shooting just 1-for-9 from the floor in 19 minutes.

The calendar just flipped to December, and conference play is still weeks away, but Wednesday will be another test for the young Blue Devils in a high-stakes environment.

“As a player, you want to play against the best and you want to be in big games,” Capel said. “Certainly anytime the ACC and the Big Ten lock up, it’s a big deal because it’s two of the better conferences in college basketball. You get a chance to see where your team is…. It definitely is [a point of pride]. We tell our guys that you come to Duke to play in games like this.”


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