In last season’s contest between Wake Forest and Duke in Winston-Salem, N.C., the Demon Deacons seemed likely to pull off an upset against the then-No. 17 Blue Devils. With just four minutes remaining in the second half, Wake Forest held a 10-point and had Duke on the brink of dropping to a mere 3-5 in conference play.
But in a Luke Kennard-led flash, the Blue Devils stormed back and pulled out a thrilling 85-83 victory.
This year’s fourth-ranked Blue Devils are not in such a dire situation as they prepare to march into Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum Tuesday at 9 p.m., and the Demon Deacons do not have the same level of offensive firepower to test Duke's defense. Although the team still has guard Bryant Crawford—who scored 26 points in the aforementioned home loss against Duke—at its disposal, Wake Forest lost the ACC’s 2016-17 Most Improved Player in John Collins to the NBA.
Danny Manning’s squad sits at just 1-6 in conference competition, leaving the Demon Deacons with the second-worst record in the ACC.
Duke’s fortunes during the 2017-18 campaign starkly contrast with those of Wake Forest, albeit with an almost completely different team than the one that staged the dramatic comeback last January. This year’s starters consist of senior Grayson Allen and four freshmen who all have matched or exceeded expectations in Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski is enjoying particularly talented bunch offensively—the Blue Devils lead the country in points per game and rank second in offensive efficiency, according to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy. The lethal combination of strong finishers at the rim, elite offensive rebounding and improving outside shooting makes Duke’s offense nearly impossible to stop for any team to stop.
In their last four games—all conference victories—the Blue Devils are making an astronomical 11.8 3-pointers per game at a highly efficient 47.5 percent clip. Leading the shooting charge is Trent, who has made 19 of his 28 attempts from beyond the arc in that stretch.
But Duke’s recovery from a 1-2 start to ACC play has primarily been fueled by its defense. The Blue Devils rank among the top 50 teams in college basketball in both blocks and turnovers forced, and their pressure on the ball creates an uncomfortable offensive environment for opponents. Much of developing a passable defense has come from endless practice and strong communication.
“So much of defense, it’s like learning to dance. If you would see somebody in a defensive stance out on the street, you’d cross the street and wouldn’t want to pass that person," Krzyzewski said. “Your body doesn’t just do that. Your body doesn’t move naturally like that. It has to learn how to dance, just like when you see all these great dancers, you all can’t do that. I can’t do that. They can do it, and we’re trying to teach them how to dance defensively. The music to the dance is talk. If you can get five guys talking, then maybe you can dance together and maybe you can win.”
Wake Forest’s recipe to an upset comes in two main areas: heating up from beyond the arc and keeping Allen quiet.
The Demon Deacons rank second in the ACC in 3-point percentage in conference play. Duke has been susceptible to poor closeouts on the perimeter, as evidenced in Boston College’s victory against the Blue Devils in December in which the Eagles made 15 of their 26 3-pointers.
In Duke’s 89-71 triumph against Wake Forest Jan. 13, Duke’s prime perimeter scoring threat in Allen was held without a field goal. This was in the midst of Allen’s struggles in conference play—in his first five ACC games, he connected on only 22 of his 74 shot attempts.
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But in Saturday’s contest against Pittsburgh, the Blue Devil veteran amassed 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting, his most efficient scoring game in more than a month. Allen clearly exhibited more confidence in his shot against Pittsburgh as the game progressed.
Referring to his shot, Allen emphatically declared, “it’s back.” A confident and efficient Allen, combined with a red-hot Trent, a consistent frontcourt in Bagley and Carter and a facilitator in Duval could transform Duke’s offense from dominant into unstoppable.