Rarely could a team that joined the ACC just four years ago be considered an “old” or “familiar” foe, but that is exactly what Notre Dame has been to Duke in the last decade.
When the No. 2 seed Blue Devils and third-seeded Fighting Irish meet at Klöckner Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., Friday at 6 p.m. for the first round of the ACC tournament, it will be the eighth time in the last nine years and sixth year in a row the two programs will have squared off in the postseason. The game will also mark the fourth consecutive year the teams have met in the ACC tournament.
Although last year’s squad fell to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, Duke has won six of the last eight meetings in the postseason with the Fighting Irish, including the 2010 national championship. The Blue Devils are coming off a dominant 17-5 victory against Marquette in Durham.
This week, Duke will be facing a Notre Dame team enjoying the return of two of its best offensive weapons, Bryan Costabile and Brendan Gleason, who were sidelined in the first meeting between the two teams three weeks ago. Combined with a less-than-perfect week of practice heading into the game, the Blue Devils are not riding as high entering the tournament as it might appear.
“We haven’t had a great week of practice. We’re very disappointed this week,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “We never look at the rankings, we never talk about them, it’s totally unimportant to what we’re trying to do every day and each week. If you [had watched] us practice this week, you would’ve thought we were number 61. And that’s the truth.”
One of the primary reasons for concern heading into Friday’s game for the Blue Devils (12-2, 3-1) is the fact that Notre Dame (6-5, 1-3 in the ACC)—like Duke—has a top-15 scoring defense in the country, surrendering just 8.8 goals per game. The Fighting Irish have held seven of their 11 opponents to fewer than 10 goals, including Duke and Virginia. Both of those programs posted their season lows for goals scored against Notre Dame.
Part of the reason for that success is long-stick midfielder John Sexton, who won ACC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this year after the Fighting Irish held off Marquette 7-6 two weeks ago. Sexton’s 3.9 ground balls per game are good for third in the ACC, making him the highest-ranked non-faceoff specialist in the conference in that category. The senior also has forced 13 turnovers this year, and at least one each of Notre Dame’s last eight games.
“You don’t have a choice [to be methodical] against Notre Dame. If you watched Notre Dame’s games all year, they go 9-7 with Virginia, they play everybody like that. It’s not anything that we’re trying to do, it’s what they make you do,” Danowski said. “They are year in and year out maybe the best defensive team in the country.”
The Fighting Irish’s strong defense proved to be the downfall of the Blue Devils a season ago, when Notre Dame took them down 7-6 on Duke’s home turf in the first round of the ACC tournament. To overcome that defense, the Blue Devils will turn to their recently-named All-ACC honorees on offense, senior attackman Justin Guterding and junior midfielder Brad Smith. Guterding leads the nation in goals with 49 and has 36 assists as well.
Smith is second only to Guterding on the team with 46 points himself on 23 goals and 23 assists. He is also just one point shy of reaching 100 points for his career as he approaches the end of a standout junior season.
Outside of those two, there will be plenty of opportunities for other players to step up this weekend, especially given Danowski’s frustration with his team as it gears up for postseason play. When asked what needs to be improved from practice this week in the game tomorrow night, his response seemed to cover just about every aspect of the game.
“Passing and catching, picking up ground balls, communicating, spacing on offense, physical play defensively, better wing play, special teams,” Danowski said. “Being able to get our sticks in the passing lane defensively, extra man, being in the right spots and being unselfish.”
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For Duke to be successful Friday night and avoid consecutive early exits from the conference tournament, it will need to do all that and more against a tough Notre Dame team that has seen seven of its 11 games decided by two goals or fewer. Although Duke shut them out in the second half in their meeting earlier this year, with Costabile and Gleason back, the Fighting Irish—who have outscored their opponents 33-24 in the fourth quarter—will be a much tougher test than they were just three weeks ago.
“They were missing two of their best players, and that was the reason [our defense was effective]. I don’t know that we played great defense, but they were shorthanded,” Danowski said. “Both of those guys are back and it’s going to be a much different-looking game this time.”