After Saturday’s top-five showdown between the premier offensive and defensive teams in the nation, Monday’s game at home against a depleted Notre Dame squad could almost seem like an afterthought to some fans. But even with their backs against the wall during their current five-game slide, the Fighting Irish are still a well-coached, experienced team that has come into Cameron as the underdogs and won before. We review the five biggest questions heading into Monday’s showdown in this budding ACC rivalry.
How will Duke respond after a frustrating loss to Virginia?
In the first half of Saturday’s loss to the Cavaliers, the Blue Devils looked lost at times on both ends of the floor, as Virginia’s pack-line defense held Duke’s top-ranked scoring offense to just 22 points in the first half while also picking apart the Blue Devils’ much-maligned defense on the other end.
Despite facing the biggest deficit it had seen at home this season, Duke gutted out a comeback and nearly stole a win before coming up just short. With the frustration of their third ACC loss of the season hanging over their heads, the Blue Devils will look to replicate that resilient spirit Saturday as they try to bounce back against a struggling Notre Dame team.
After their previous losses this season—on the road at Boston College and N.C. State—Duke returned home twice to take care of vastly overmatched opponents in Evansville and Pittsburgh, respectively. And though Notre Dame is not nearly the same team many expected it to be after losing three of its key players to injury, the Fighting Irish have been a tough out in Cameron since joining the ACC and will give the Blue Devils more of a test of their mental resolve following a tough loss.
Can the Irish put up a fight missing three starters?
Coming into the season, Notre Dame was expected to be a strong challenger in the ACC— perhaps not as talented as Duke or even North Carolina, but still an experienced, well-coached team that looked to contend for the league crown. But in the span of two games at the beginning of conference play, the Irish lost two starters—Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell—and have essentially been in a free fall ever since.
Since beating N.C. State at home two days into the new year—the game when Farrell was first injured—Notre Dame won its next contest but have now lost five straight games, and it lost freshman starter D.J. Harvey to a bone bruise along the way. Monday’s game will be its eighth in a row without at least two starters. Since beginning their five-game slide, the Fighting Irish have not shot better than 40 percent from the field.
Which team will be ready after a quick two-day turnaround?
Duke and Notre Dame each will have three weekends of Saturday-Monday games this season, a tricky scheduling issue in a tough conference. The Fighting Irish got the short end of the stick even in these unique weekends, as they need to travel to complete all three of their Saturday-Monday pairs. Notre Dame will be coming off an 8 p.m. home game Saturday ahead of its trip to Durham, while the Blue Devils will be able to spend the weekend at home following their afternoon game against Virginia.
For the Irish, the quick turnaround on the road against one of the most talented teams in the country could not come at a worse time. The absence of Colson, Farrell and Harvey for Saturday and Monday’s games intensifies the burden on the rest of the team.
Can T.J. Gibbs stretch the court enough to help the Irish offense keep pace with the Blue Devils?
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Without Colson and Farrell, sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs has suddenly become Notre Dame’s primary scoring threat. Always a danger from beyond the arc—where he is shooting 42.0 percent this season—Gibbs has seen his role change in the absence of the Irish’s senior leaders. Against Virginia Tech Saturday, Gibbs posted a career-high 27 points, draining 3-of-5 3-point attempts and nearly leading a successful comeback attempt on the road that fell just short in the end.
Although Notre Dame is missing three players who were combining for 42.9 points per game in Colson, Farrell and Harvey, Gibbs’ ability to knock down threes may give the Fighting Irish’s other shooters, like Rex Pflueger and John Mooney, the chance to stretch Duke’s frequently shaky defense and cause trouble from the outside. Mooney put up 15 points and 11 rebounds in his first start at Virginia Tech for his first career double-double—Notre Dame will need a repeat of that performance to hang around with Duke’s high-powered offense.
Will Duke’s bench see the floor?
In the aftermath of the Virginia loss, much of the conversation focused on the play of Duke’s reserves—or rather, the lack thereof. Duke’s bench players combined to play all of six minutes against the Cavaliers, as Javin DeLaurier and Alex O’Connell combined for two fouls and two rebounds.
It is clear that the reserve situation is still a work in progress. DeLaurier has been a welcome addition on the floor this season on the defensive end, but has struggled with foul trouble at times as well. O’Connell, too, has had his ups and downs off the bench, but has proven his ability to provide much-needed energy and relief as well. Although it is likely to be O’Connell and DeLaurier who see the most meaningful minutes on Monday, the matchup with the Fighting Irish should shed some light on any new rotations Krzyzewski may look to implement heading into the stretch of ACC play.