Saturday, the Blue Devils took on an up-and-coming ACC opponent fresh off a big upset, but they quickly squashed Virginia Tech’s hopes of a second straight win against a ranked opponent.
Now, Duke finds itself in that situation once again—just against a different opponent.
After easily dispatching the Hokies in their first conference home game of the year, the No. 9 Blue Devils hit the road again to take on Clemson Wednesday at 7 p.m. at BSW Arena in Greenville, S.C. The Tigers were predicted to finish 12th in the ACC in the preseason rankings, but just knocked off then-No. 16 Louisville Sunday and are riding a three-game winning streak into Wednesday’s contest.
Clemson’s only conference defeat came at the hands of No. 5 North Carolina—which currently sits atop the ACC standings—and a win would catapult the Tigers past Duke early in conference play. But the Blue Devils have reeled off three straight victories of their own to start off ACC action and appear to be playing some of their best basketball of the season after cruising past Virginia Tech thanks to a 50-point first half.
“We played well. We played a team that’s been playing great. The first half was sensational, not just offensively, but defensively,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Saturday’s win. “Overall, that was a really outstanding performance by our kids coming after the huge win in adverse situations Wednesday night [at Wake Forest].”
Duke (14-2, 3-0 in the ACC) used an early onslaught of 3-pointers to put the Hokies in a deep hole Saturday, and a career-best 21 points from center Marshall Plumlee helped keep Virginia Tech from mounting a comeback. If the Blue Devils want to escape Greenville with their perfect conference record intact, they are going to need another big performance from Plumlee against a Clemson squad with plenty of talent and depth in its frontcourt.
Forward Jaron Blossomgame leads the way offensively for the Tigers (10-6, 3-1) with 15.4 points per game on 51.5 percent shooting. At 6-foot-7, he is also the team's top rebounder for the second straight year with 7.1 boards per contest, but is versatile enough to step back and stretch defenses out to the perimeter, where he shoots nearly 40 percent from deep.
With Duke forward Amile Jefferson still sidelined with a fractured right foot, the task of guarding Blossomgame—who scored a game-high 17 points against the Cardinals—will likely fall to freshman Brandon Ingram. Ingram has been seeing much more time at the power forward spot since Jefferson’s injury, and has averaged more than eight rebounds per game in the seven games that Jefferson has missed. In his last two contests, Ingram has transformed into an elite shot-blocker as well, using his 6-foot-9 frame and 7-foot-3 wingspan to amass 10 blocks in that stretch.
“That’s the key point going into the game, knowing I’m playing the four position. So just going in, knowing that I have certain things to do,” Ingram said. “Just focusing on the inside, knowing that I’m going [against] bigger guys, so I’m just using my length to block shots.”
Blossomgame is joined down low by a pair of 6-foot-10 centers, Landry Nnoko and Sidy Djitte. Nnoko typically receives the starting nod for head coach Brad Brownwell’s squad and is second in the conference with 2.3 blocks per game, but Djitte comes off the bench to provide an offensive punch in the post, where he leads the team by converting on 67.4 percent of his shots.
Plumlee will be tasked with neutralizing Clemson’s centers while also trying to continue his recent offensive surge. Before his 21-point outburst against the Hokies, Plumlee set a career-high with 18 points against Wake Forest Jan. 6 and finished the week having missed just one field goal and one free throw.
The Warsaw, Ind., native has been the recipient of a steady diet of inside feeds from Duke’s guards, who have been able to penetrate off the dribble and generate easy looks for the big man down low. Part of the reason the Blue Devil ball-handlers have been able to get into the paint so often is the team’s recent hot streak from behind the arc. Duke has made at least eight 3-pointers in four of its past five games, all of them victories. Against the Hokies, the Blue Devils ran away with the game early by hitting seven 3-pointers in the game's opening 7:04.
“They’re not playing horrible defense," Krzyzewski said Saturday. "We just knocked down everything.”
Duke’s offense may have a tougher go Wednesday against the Tigers, who prefer a grind-it-out type of game that contrasts greatly with the Blue Devils’ high-flying offense. Clemson’s opponents are scoring only 62.2 points per game, and the Cardinals shot a woeful 3-for-23 from the 3-point line Sunday, so something will have to give come Wednesday night.
“I know I’m fortunate to play with some really talented teammates who draw a lot of attention,” Plumlee said. “When you have guys like Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen getting in the lane every possession, they draw a lot of attention, and that leaves openings for either myself or another teammate. So some nights it might be me, some nights it might be someone else, but overall I think it’s winning basketball.”
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