When Duke last ventured south for a matchup with Clemson—albeit at its temporary home in Greenville, S.C.—the Blue Devils left the floor losers. And for all the success Duke has had in the last 20 years against its conference foe, winning 31 of 36 matchups, road matchups with the Tigers have been the Blue Devils' kryptonite ever since an embarrassing 74-47 defeat in February 2009.
But on the heels of an inspiring defensive performance Wednesday against Virginia Tech, No. 12 Duke will return to Clemson, S.C. and Littlejohn Coliseum Sunday at 1 p.m. for a matchup with 11th-ranked Clemson, hoping for a third straight victory and the opportunity to put itself in the driver's seat for a second-place finish in the ACC.
Although an injury to Tiger star Donte Grantham appeared to be a potential roadblock in the midst of Clemson's most successful year in recent memory, head coach Brad Brownell's club has responded emphatically. Following Grantham's ACL tear, the Tigers were thumped on the road by then-No. 2 Virginia before ripping off four straight wins until an overtime defeat Wednesday night at Florida State.
With Clemson at its highest point in the AP Top 25 since 2008-09, the Tigers will arguably be Duke's toughest true road test of the season, but could prove to be yet another confidence boost for a group of Blue Devils that is slowly finding a rhythm on both ends of the floor.
"We played the whole game finally. We didn’t have a lapse or a break. We played hard together for a full 40 minutes tonight," guard Gary Trent Jr. said after Wednesday's win. "[We're] still learning, still growing. Even with the win, we have to get better every day."
In Grantham's absence, Clemson (20-5, 9-4 in the ACC) has leaned heavily on its backcourt trio of Marcquise Reed, Gabe DeVoe and Shelton Mitchell, who make up more than half of the team's scoring output. But Mitchell's status for Sunday afternoon remains very much in doubt—the junior took an elbow to the head in overtime against the Seminoles and was unable to walk off the floor on his own power before being taken to the hospital.
Mitchell remains in the concussion protocol, and there has been no further update since he left the hospital Thursday and returned to South Carolina.
Nonetheless, Duke (21-5, 9-4) will have to contend with a team that, despite not being known for its offensive prowess, has made a living beyond the arc this season. In big-time wins against Ohio State, Miami and North Carolina, the Tigers knocked down double-digit triples in each contest, and they are shooting nearly 40 percent as a team from long range.
Whether the Blue Devils return to their patented man-to-man defense or reprise the effective zone scheme that helped them rout Virginia Tech, defensive effort will remain a key for Duke in the coming weeks.
"We stress talk. The three systems you try to teach are offense, defense and communication, and the first two are helped if you have the third one, but defensively, especially in zone, if you’re talking, you’ll be wider," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Wednesday. "It’s just human nature. Even when you start to talk to me, your hands go out. When you talk, you become wider.... When you don’t talk, your hands are down and you’re not moving as well. That’s what we’re stressing, and the zone, in order for it to be played well, has to have that."
On the flip side, the Blue Devil offense also took a new approach to dominance against the Hokies. With Marvin Bagley III out for a second straight game and the freshman big man set to remain sidelined Sunday, Duke looked to its dynamic shooting duo of Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen to carry things from beyond the arc.
But unlike the unspectacular defensive unit the Blue Devils faced in Durham, Clemson sits just outside the top 10 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defense metric—second in the ACC behind only the Cavaliers. Although the Tigers have allowed opponents to shoot nearly 35 percent on 3-pointers this season, Duke's big men should also have a significant advantage on the inside.
With no Clemson post player bigger than 6-foot-9 and 237 pounds, Sunday should be another opportunity for Wendell Carter Jr., Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier to control the game inside, both in terms of scoring and dominating the glass.
Still, the Blue Devils may continue to revolve around Grayson Allen—and with the senior captain getting his offensive mojo back, Duke has shown signs that it is ready to finally hit its best stride of the year.
"He’s definitely the one that gathers us together. Coach tells us we need to huddle up more, and he put that on Grayson," freshman Trevon Duval said. "He’s been a great leader for us. He knows a lot of these teams, he’s played against a lot of them. He knows what Coach wants on the court. He helps us out. He knows when we needs stops, just has a feeling for the game."
In the midst of what could ultimately prove to be a season-defining stretch for the Blue Devils, a critical victory away from home may be just what Duke needs to remind the college basketball world that it remains as dangerous a national-title threat as anyone.
"In the beginning of the year, we would start off games not as well but then finish games well. And then we went to where we were starting off games well but not finishing well, so we’ve just been trying to put those two together," DeLaurier said. "It’s starting to come together right now.”
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."