With conference play underway, the depth of the ACC is rising up to put the top teams on watch.
In just the first week of conference play, No. 4 Virginia dropped a road game to in-state rival Virginia Tech and No. 6 North Carolina needed a Herculean performance from Brice Johnson to stave off Florida State on the road. No. 14 Duke will look to avoid a similar close call Wednesday when it travels to take on Wake Forest at 7 p.m. at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Even though the ACC season is still young, the strength of the conference from top to bottom has not been lost on the Blue Devils, and the Demon Deacons—who took then-No. 18 Louisville down to the wire before falling by eight Sunday—are no exception.
“The ACC schedule is unbelievable. The nonconference, when we play teams like Kentucky, it helps us to play teams in the ACC. The ACC, I think, is the best conference in college basketball,” freshman Luke Kennard said after Duke’s 81-64 win against Boston College Saturday. “The intensity, the pressure of winning the games is all increased a little bit. We know that, the coaches know that and we try to put in our minds. We just have to come out every night, no matter the opponent, no matter their records—because at the start of ACC play, everyone starts 0-0 in the conference.”
Duke (12-2, 1-0 in the ACC) checked off two boxes on its to-do list with the win against the Eagles, prevailing in its first true road game of the season and getting its four contributing freshmen their first taste of ACC play. Kennard and fellow rookie Brandon Ingram looked right at home against Boston College, combining for 42 points on 16-of-29 shooting. Derryck Thornton and Chase Jeter—the other two members of the Blue Devils’ top-ranked recruiting class—struggled to find a groove Saturday and played only 21 minutes combined.
The freshman quartet figures to have a heavy hand in the outcome of Wednesday’s tilt—the group now comprises more than half of head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s rotation with senior Amile Jefferson sidelined—but none of them were in uniform when the Blue Devils traveled to Wake Forest last year. That game, also an early January tilt, ended in a Duke victory, but the Demon Deacons held a lead late into the second half and gave a then-undefeated Blue Devil squad all it could handle.
Head coach Danny Manning’s squad returns all of its key cogs from last year, and with another year of experience is off to a strong start. Bruising 6-foot-9 forward Devin Thomas leads the way for Wake Forest (9-4, 0-1), and has emerged as one of the top big men in the country with a double-double average of 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Thomas torched Duke’s interior defense last season for 24 points on 60 percent shooting, and will team with 6-foot-10 sophomore Konstantinos Mitoglou to try to wreak havoc on the inside again against the soft spot of this Blue Devil team without Jefferson.
“Devin Thomas is one of the better big guys in our league—he’s averaging a double-double,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said on his radio show Monday night. “We know it will be rocking there, so we’re excited for the challenge.
Guard Codi Miller-McIntyre flirted with a triple-double in Winston-Salem a season ago, but has yet to return to form after a broken foot left him sidelined for the season's eight games. In five games since retaking the floor, Miller-McIntyre has reached double-figures just once—the only game in which he made more than one field goal.
In his place, freshman guard Bryant Crawford has stepped in to command the offense and leads the team in assists while posting 13.9 points per contest.
At 42.1 percent from beyond the arc, Crawford is the top 3-point threat on a team that struggles to connect from downtown, where the Demon Deacons shoot less than 33 percent as a team. Like most freshmen, Crawford has endured his share of growing pains and has turned the ball over 46 times to go against his 60 assists. But the Silver Spring, Md., native drew praise from Capel and seems to have turned the corner recently, averaging 17.0 points per game in his last four contests.
Crawford holds the keys to an offense that can threaten the Blue Devils with size on the inside or by pushing the ball in transition. Despite Duke's lack of frontcourt depth—Jeter only played six mintues against Boston College, even with 7-footer Dennis Clifford patrolling the paint for the Eagles—Wake Forest’s penchant for pushing the ball in transition has Capel most concerned looking ahead to Wednesday.
“They are very very good pushing the ball in transition. I think last year when we played them at Wake Forest, I think they had something like 36 transition points against us,” Capel said. “Devin Thomas is one of the better rebounders in our league, and he’s very good at outletting quick to those guys. They eat up the court with how fast they go. They run for layups, they get threes in transition—but that will be the key...to win the basketball game.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.