Back in September, the Blue Devils celebrated their national championship with a trip to the White House.
Now, Duke returns to the nation's capital looking for another title.
The No. 19 Blue Devils begin postseason play in Washington Wednesday with a 2 p.m. tip-off at the Verizon Center against N.C. State in the second round of the ACC tournament. The 12th-seeded Wolfpack squeaked by Wake Forest 75-72 Tuesday to earn a third shot at fifth-seeded Duke, which has already bested them twice during the regular season.
The Blue Devils have not been playing their best basketball of late and enter the conference tournament just 2-3 in their last five games. The team demonstrated its potential during a five-game winning streak in the middle of ACC play that included three consecutive victories against ranked opponents, but has yet to show it can consistently compete at that level game in and game out.
“If we take a positive away from the regular season, it’s that we can play with anybody—but the right team has to show up,” Duke sophomore Grayson Allen said after Saturday's loss against North Carolina. “We’ve been such an up-and-down team, and if you’re up-and-down in the postseason, you’re done. Your season is over. So we can’t do that, and we have to be mentally and emotionally prepared to make sure the right Duke team shows up.”
If they are not sharp, the Blue Devils (22-9) could be upset by N.C. State (16-16), a dangerous team despite its 5-13 ledger in conference play. Led by first team All-ACC selection Anthony “Cat” Barber—who paced the conference in scoring at 23.4 points per game during the regular season—the Wolfpack boast several offensive weapons who can put up points in a hurry against a Duke team that has struggled defensively at times.
The Blue Devils had some success at home defending Barber with freshman point guard Derryck Thornton, but containing the lightning-quick guard for 40 minutes is a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of any one player.
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"He’s really talented and a really athletic guard, so that’s something where our whole team needs to help in guarding him," center Marshall Plumlee said after the teams' second meeting Feb. 6. "No one person should have that assignment and so we tried to play good team defense. There were some good moments, and there were some lapses, but all in all I thought we were able to do what we needed to do in order to get the win."
With 240-pound Abdul Malik-Abu and 285-pound BeeJay Anya down low, N.C. State packs quite a punch on the interior. The pair combines to average 17.4 points and 14.1 rebounds per game and will look to take advantage of an undersized Blue Devil frontcourt that features Plumlee as its one true post player alongside 190-pound Brandon Ingram as the stretch four.
Freshman Maverick Rowan complements Barber on the perimeter. The 6-foot-7 wing looked right at home in his first postseason contest against the Demon Deacons, draining 6-of-13 triples on his way to a 24-point outburst. Neither Barber nor Rowan are particularly high-percentage shooters—the Wolfpack as a team ranked 13th in the ACC with a 43 percent mark from the field—but both are capable of catching fire from outside and are adept at beating defenders off the dribble.
In both of the first two meetings between the teams, Duke put up 88 points against a suspect N.C. State defense—which allowed 73.9 points per game in the regular season, second-worst in the conference—and held off the pesky Wolfpack late to come out with a victory. Neither game was a comfortable win for the Blue Devils, an indication that N.C. State frequently plays at a level higher than its subpar record implies.
Allen poured in 28 points in both games against the Wolfpack—topping 50 percent from the field in each contest as well—and is the driving offensive force for Duke after leading the team in scoring in nine of its final 10 regular-season games. The Blue Devils function best when freshmen Brandon Ingram and Luke Kennard can get going from the outside to give the team three dynamic scorers, but the rookies have hit a bump in the latter half of the season as the rigors of a full ACC slate have taken their toll.
Duke forfeited an opportunity to secure a double-bye in the conference tournament with its loss to the Tar Heels, meaning the Blue Devils would have to win four games in four days to capture their first ACC tournament title since winning three straight from 2009 to 2011. With a rotation of mainly six players, depth has been an issue all season for Duke, a cause for concern if the Blue Devils continue advancing toward the weekend.
But Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said he is worried only with the opponent in front of him and getting that first win out of the way.
“Let’s just play the first game. Let’s just play the first game. If we win, then we get to play the second game. Can you assure us of the first game?” Krzyzewski said after Saturday’s loss. “In the military, one of the expressions that they have is ‘a need-to-know basis.’ And we don’t need to know [if we can win four in a row]. Let’s just figure out what we need to know about Wednesday’s game.”