The last time Duke and Yale met, the Bulldogs came within seven points of a major upset against the Blue Devils in the 2016 NCAA tournament.
Duke will hope for a more comfortable victory when the two teams battle this time around Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. But to do that, the Blue Devils will have to avoid the slow offensive start that plagued them against Hartford, limiting them to a slim 33-24 halftime lead despite a 37.5-point line. And as head coach Mike Krzyzewski said following his team’s win over the Hawks, it is Duke’s defense that must allow the offense to find its rhythm.
“If we become the team that we we hope we become, it will be because of the energy we have on defense,” Krzyzewski said. “In transition, we are dynamite. We are really good. And every once in a while in half-court...you can miss shots. But in transition, when you have the vertical advantage, we are going to score.”
There have been times this season—such as against Army and Gonzaga—when that defense appeared lazy and out of sync. But if the Blue Devils (8-1) defend Saturday the way they did Wednesday night against Hartford, Yale (4-2) will not stand a chance. Duke blocked 10 of Hartford’s shot attempts, only adding to its 7.4 blocks per game that entered the contest leading the NCAA.
“We have guys that can block shots,” Krzyzewski said. “We have played really good defense in my 39 years here...this team can play great defense and it can block shots and that helps...I cannot teach them to jump. If they can jump and they have got long arms, they are going to block shots. So I would like to take credit for that but the guy up above—I did not take credit for it—it is all on you.”
Although the game ended in a 30-point drubbing, the Hawks were able to stay in it during the first half by boasting strengths that directly resemble Duke’s biggest weaknesses: experience and three-point shooting. And in facing Yale, the Blue Devils must prepare to face those same qualities.
The Bulldogs rank 18th in the country in 3-point percentage, hitting 40.4 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Furthermore, Yale’s top five leaders in minutes this season are all upperclassmen. The alpha of that pack is Ivy League Player of the Year candidate Miye Oni, whose 18.8 points per game place him third in the conference.
For Duke, the key to limiting the Bulldogs’ strengths could be junior Javin DeLaurier. Yale’s top four rebounding leaders have all attempted at least 15 3-pointers this season, meaning the Blue Devil bigs will have to defend on the perimeter. And with fellow center Marques Bolden struggling in that facet of the game thus far, DeLaurier—who set season-highs with five blocks and three steals against Hartford—will need to fill that role Saturday.
“I am not as nervous,” DeLaurier said regarding his improvement over the course of the year. “I settled down a little bit. I am fully healthy and just excited to get back in the groove with the team. I was definitely in a bit of a slump there for a while and hopefully I can continue this stretch.”
Another X-factor will be Cam Reddish’s shooting stroke. The freshman guard has been extremely streaky this season, often disappearing on offense like he did Wednesday when he scored just five points on 2-of-12 shooting from the field. But a 23-point explosion in Duke’s previous win over Stetson proves that the Norristown, Pa., native can be a force when his shot is falling.
“I was talking to Cam about it and at the end of the day you just got to keep shooting,” captain forward Jack White—who also struggled to a 2-of-6 mark from the field against the Hawks—said. “They are going to fall eventually so you just got to trust that and keep that belief.”
In addition, this past week represented Duke’s end of the fall semester, posing yet another challenge for the Blue Devils’ student-athletes. Nevertheless, Krzyzewski has made it a priority to ensure his players are prepared for their busy schedule.
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“This is that time of the year [that] it is very difficult for our teams...because exams are next week,” Krzyzewski said. “But this week, a lot of times, it is harder than exams because of all the projects, papers and sometimes it is the end of a course this week.”
But if Duke’s players are stressed, they certainly are not showing it. Over the course of their recent blowouts, the Blue Devils have made it a custom to finish the game off with a bang, from Justin Robinson’s breakaway dunk against Stetson to Zion Williamson’s off-the-backboard alley-oop to R.J. Barrett against Hartford. And if Duke’s matchup with Yale breaks as wide open as it should, expect some more fireworks in Durham Saturday night.