After a strong nonconference slate that saw Louisville suffer just one defeat—a narrow three-point loss at the hands of then-No. 20 Baylor—the Cardinals came out of the gates sluggish in ACC play. Louisville fell against a fellow ACC contender in then-No. 12 Virginia at home and on the road to then-No. 23 Notre Dame, but the No. 14 Cardinals have now rebounded and are back at .500 in the league with quality nonconference wins against Kentucky, Purdue and Indiana.
If the roller-coaster start to the second half of Louisville’s season is any indication of what to expect come Saturday, Duke fans will likely be anxiously awaiting the Blue Devils’ next shot at the team’s first ACC road victory.
With both teams preparing for a crucial late-January matchup, The Chronicle gets you ready with five things to look for as the Blue Devils return to the KFC Yum! Center for the third straight season.
A dynamic duo
With experience and continuity, the Louisville backcourt pairing of sophomore Donovan Mitchell and junior Quentin Snider has established itself as one of the ACC’s best. The two combine for a little more than a third of the Cardinal offense—averaging 25.5 points per game together—and each plays about 30 minutes a night. Snider handles the point guard duties for Louisville with a 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio, good for 35th in the nation, and tied a career-high with 22 points Wednesday night against Pittsburgh.
Mitchell—the Cardinals’ leading scorer this year—victimized Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium for 17 points but was held scoreless at home. The then-freshman shot 7-of-11 from the field in just 24 minutes and a more explosive version of the 6-foot-3 guard could spell trouble for a Blue Devil team that has struggled defensively in transition thus far. Duke allowed 13 fast-break points at No. 9 Florida State Tuesday night and can expect more quick-strike offense if Louisville’s guards find driving lanes.
Physicality at its finest
In the Blue Devils’ last road game against the the Cardinals, it was a turnover-fest. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino’s tough-minded squad forced Duke star Brandon Ingram into 10 giveaways and caused 18 Blue Devil turnovers. Although this year’s Duke team averages just 11.6 per game, the Blue Devils committed 16 turnovers against Florida State, leading to 22 Seminole points.
Louisville currently stands third in the ACC in turnover margin at +3.8 a night and held Duke to only 64 points at the KFC Yum! Center last season—even with 29 points from Grayson Allen. And outside their backcourt duo, the Cardinals boast a number of athletic rim protectors, including sophomore Deng Adel, junior Anas Mahmoud and redshirt senior Mangok Mathiang. Mahmoud leads Louisville with 37 blocks and Mathiang averages 6.0 rebounds per game.
The Cardinals outscored the Blue Devils 70-42 on points in paint between their two contests last season. And after getting dominated by Florida State big men Michael Ojo and Jarquez Smith, Duke will need to respond—with or without graduate student Amile Jefferson—this weekend.
For the second straight contest away from Cameron Indoor Stadium since returning from his one-game suspension, Allen will have to face an opponent who he tripped last season—Seminole fans made plenty of noise Tuesday night in response to Allen’s second incident. But the original crime came in Duke’s first matchup with Louisville last season when after hitting the floor, the then-sophomore stuck out a foot and sent Cardinal forward Ray Spalding to the floor.
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Although no one could have expected the Jacksonville, Fla., native’s first transgression to become a pattern, Louisville fans will be sure to jeer Allen when he takes to their home floor Saturday. The junior led the Blue Devils with five assists Tuesday, but finished with only nine points and was 0-of-3 from beyond the arc.
If Duke’s leading scorer from last year can find a groove in yet another tough environment, though, he could be in for another big game against the Cardinals after giving his team nearly half its total scoring last year in Louisville.
Although Jefferson’s status for Saturday remains up in the air, the Cardinals got one of their best players back Wednesday night. Adel, who suffered a concussion last weekend at Georgia Tech, returned to action against Pittsburgh and scored 15 points off the bench. The 6-foot-7 forward is Louisville’s best free-throw shooter at 80.9 percent and averages 10.6 points per game.
Although they have not been decimated like the Blue Devils, the Cardinals have had their fair share of injuries already with Mahmoud also suffering a concussion earlier in the year and reserve Matz Stockman still out after taking a blow to the head against Indiana.
Unfamiliar coaching battle
Pitino and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s connection has been the centerpiece of recent matchups between the two teams. Louisville knocked off the Blue Devils in the 2013 Elite Eight before going on to win the national title that year, but since the Cardinals joined the ACC, Duke holds a 2-1 series advantage.
This time around, however, Pitino will be taking on Jeff Capel. The Cardinals knocked out Capel’s Oklahoma team in the second round of the 2008 NCAA tournament but the Blue Devils’ interim head coach never faced Pitino during his own playing days at Duke—when the 64 year-old was the head coach at Kentucky.