Within the first few years of Notre Dame joining the ACC, it seemed as if vaunted Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski finally met his kryptonite—the Mike Brey-led Fighting Irish captured five of their first six contests against the Blue Devils as conference rivals.
Yet, less than three years after Notre Dame eliminated Duke from the ACC tournament for the second consecutive year, Krzyzewski has proven why he, and not his former protégé in Brey, is the man to fear in the ACC. In the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, the Blue Devils took care of the Fighting Irish in all four of their matchups, with a healthy 14-point average margin of victory in the span.
Brey, who served as an assistant to Krzyzewski from 1987-95, hopes to reverse his squad’s recent misfortunes against No. 2 Duke when the Blue Devils travel to South Bend, Ind., to take on Notre Dame Monday night at 7 p.m.
Duke’s 66-53 victory over a mediocre Georgia Tech team Saturday afternoon did not come easily—the heavily favored Blue Devils trailed 35-27 with 18 minutes remaining into the second half when an impassioned Krzyzewski called for a timeout.
“He said ‘Little kids do stuff like this—if you want to be a loser, be a loser,” Duke forward Zion Williamson said. “But if you’re a winner, you say you’re a winner, and you go out there and show why you’re a winner.’”
Following the break, the Blue Devils came out with a vengeance, and a 13-3 run gave Duke the lead for good with just over 13 minutes left in the contest.
Saturday marked the Blue Devils’ lowest offensive output of the season, and their abysmal 2-for-21 performance from beyond the arc was easily their least efficient 3-point effort of the 2018-19 campaign.
Although the dreadful 3-point shooting is a major concern for Krzyzewski’s bunch—Duke’s 30.1 3-point percentage is just the 326th-best mark in the country—perhaps more worrying for the Blue Devils was their inability to get in transition Saturday. The Yellows Jackets controlled the pace, and kept the high flying Williamson and Duke off the run, and the Blue Devils finished with just 7 fastbreak points.
“You can’t come up empty in transition at the basket,” Krzyzewski said. “How hard do you work to get there? We’ll show our guys—you’ve got to finish or get fouled. And we weren’t fouled. We didn’t finish.”
If the struggling Fighting Irish find a way to pull off a miraculous upset against No. 2 Duke, they will likely follow the same recipe that Georgia Tech could not follow through with: force the Blue Devils into half-court sets and make them shoot from deep.
Even though Notre Dame currently owns the worst conference record in the ACC, there are signs to indicate that the Fighting Irish are better than their ledger suggests—they have the third-lowest turnover rate in college basketball and a budding star in John Mooney, who is averaging 17.4 points and 13.6 rebounds on 46.2 percent from outside in conference play.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Duke’s Tre Jones, perhaps the most indispensable Blue Devils, returned to action Saturday, ending a 12-day absence due to a shoulder injury. The freshman point guard is unquestionably Duke’s emotional leader, and leads the team with 5.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game.
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“This kid is a special, special competitor,” Krzyzewski said. “I love him and it’s not anything I taught him, but thank goodness he’s with us. This kid is a special kid and his teammates know that.”
With Jones back and the sensational Williamson, who is averaging 27.3 points on 68.9 shooting in his last 4 contests, in the fold for the Blue Devils, it’s hard to imagine a healthy Duke squad being upset by a subpar Notre Dame squad Monday evening, unless Brey can produce the same magic he had against the Blue Devils a few seasons ago.