On Feb. 8, No. 13 Louisville strode into Durham having won seven of eight to take on a wounded and unranked Duke team still looking for its identity and a signature win.
The Blue Devils came away with their first marquee victory that day, but they need one more to emerge unscathed from their schedule’s most grueling stretch.
Following their improbable win in Chapel Hill against No. 5 North Carolina Wednesday, the No. 20 Blue Devils will make the trek to the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., for a noon tip-off Saturday against the No. 18 Cardinals. Louisville nearly erased a 15-point deficit to escape with a win in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but Duke calmly put the game away at the free throw line to knock off its first ranked opponent of the season—a feat it has accomplished twice more since then in thrilling fashion.
Prevailing in Wednesday’s rivalry contest guaranteed the Blue Devils a winning record through their four-ranked-opponents-in-13-days gauntlet—with tilts against No. 7 Virginia and the Tar Heels sandwiched by the Louisville contests. But the win did not come without a cost for Duke, as junior captain Matt Jones sprained his left ankle midway through the first half and did not return, instead appearing on the sidelines with crutches.
The program announced Friday that X-rays on Jones' ankle came back negative, but the DeSoto, Texas, native will sit out of Saturday's game after an MRI confirmed the ankle sprain. But Jones is going through pre-game warm-ups in Louisville and could end up see time off the bench.
For a team that lost Amile Jefferson to a foot fracture in December and was already severely challenged in the depth department—the Blue Devils played five players at least 32 minutes Wednesday—losing a glue guy like Jones to significant minutes means the Blue Devils will have to increasingly rely on their freshmen to win games.
“These kids have gotten so close, they’ve done an incredible job. At one time we had four freshmen and a sophomore out there,” Krzyzewski said after Wedensday’s game. “We didn’t start the second half well. We hit a three to cut it to one, and then we had bad looks. From that timeout on, we had great looks, we had great looks the rest of the game.”
Since leaving Durham, the Cardinals (20-6, 9-4 in the ACC) have had their share of adversity as well. Louisville went on the road later that week and suffered its second straight conference loss, a 71-66 decision at the hands of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish outrebounded the Cardinals by 12 in that matchup—a disturbing sign for a Louisville team that typically excels on the glass and ranks 11th in the nation in offensive rebounds per game.
Two days after that, Rick Pitino's squad announced that center Anas Mahmoud—who recorded three blocks in 17 minutes against the Blue Devils—had suffered a right ankle sprain in practice that will keep him off the court for the rest of the season. Although not a starter, Mahmoud was an important reserve for Louisville and provided frontcourt depth that became increasingly valuable after starting center Mangok Mathiang was lost to a foot injury in December.
The Cardinals bounced back with a 14-point win against Syracuse—featuring a seemingly endless loop of alley-oops—and are now in a three-way tie with Notre Dame and Duke for fourth place in the conference. Louisville self-imposed a postseason ban Feb. 5 amid an ongoing NCAA investigation, so Saturday's contest against the Blue Devils (20-6, 9-4) remains one of the Cardinals' last marquee games of the season. For Duke, the matchup carries plenty of weight as well—the Blue Devils are tied with Notre Dame and Louisville for fourth place in the ACC, and a win could help Duke stay in the running for a double-bye in next month's ACC tournament.
Minus Jones, an even greater burden will fall on freshmen guards Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton. Thornton made the game-saving play Wednesday in Chapel Hill with his block of Joel Berry II's jumper on the last possession and Kennard scored 15 points, including a 3-pointer that put Duke ahead 72-71. But both will be tested again on the defensive end Saturday, trying to contain explosive guards Damion Lee and Trey Lewis without Jones—the Blue Devils' defensive anchor.
With another of its captains sidelined, Saturday cannot be a time for any form of hangover after Duke's Tobacco Road triumph.
“We’re celebrating [Wednesday's win] right now, but we know we have another tough test,” said freshman Brandon Ingram, who notched a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds in the first meeting against the Cardinals. “We just have to keep pushing, no excuses and just keep it going.”
This story was updated at 11:57 a.m. with more information about Jones warming up.
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