Last season, Pittsburgh lost all 18 of its conference games.
But after hiring Jeff Capel as their new head coach—snagging him away from Durham in the process—the Panthers have turned the tide with an outside shot at their first NCAA tournament berth since 2016 in sight.
No. 2 Duke now serves as Pittsburgh’s next test, as the Blue Devils will travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers Tuesday at 9 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center. One of the biggest strengths of Capel’s squad this year has been its ability to get to the foul line, ranking 11th in the country and first in the ACC in free throw attempts.
And after a night against Virginia in which the Blue Devils committed 18 fouls and a season-low one block, an ability to defend in the paint without fouling and strong communication will be essential if they hope to come out of Pittsburgh with the win.
“They really adjusted to a different defense,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said following Duke’s win against the Cavaliers. “They reacted out of every timeout to what we wanted. If we put in a different set or defense, the communication was excellent. They played as good a team in the country tonight—obviously we played them at home—and we were able to come out on top.”
The Panther who has spent the most time at the line this year has been freshman Xavier Johnson. After coming to Pittsburgh (12-6, 2-3 in the ACC) as a four-star recruit, the Arlington, Va., native has had a breakout rookie campaign, leading the team with 17.1 points—ninth in the ACC—and 4.6 assists per game.
And with point guard Tre Jones unlikely to suit up Tuesday, the Blue Devils (15-2, 4-1) will have to try and contain Johnson without their best perimeter defender. Nevertheless, the team did a successful job limiting Kyle Guy against Virginia, holding the All-American to 14 points and one assist.
“Obviously things were going to be different [without Jones], especially defensively,” junior captain Jack White said. “We were switching a lot. Everyone had to be ready to defend, especially with how we were switching defensively. We are going to have that in our back pocket for the rest of the season.”
Another issue Duke faced against the Cavaliers without Jones was ball movement. Duke totaled just six assists Saturday night—the team’s next-lowest mark this season was nine against Gonzaga. That kind of basketball may have worked on a night in which R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson seemed to never miss in the paint. But if Krzyzewski's squad wants to consistently pull out victories in a tough ACC, it has to stray away from relying on isolation.
“After practicing this week without [Jones] and R.J., getting more comfortable in the paint, our team made great strides and getting used to that,” White said. “It is a big difference when Tre is out and he runs the show for us every night. R.J. did a fantastic job for us, scoring the ball and facilitating, really leading us. I could not be more proud of him as a young guy really stepping up against big-time competition.”
The Blue Devils’ 3-point shooting also remains a serious problem. Duke mitigated its most glaring weakness by attempting just 14 3-pointers—sinking two—against Virginia compared to the 43 it hoisted against Syracuse. But the team was also bailed out by an uncharacteristically poor shooting night from the Cavaliers, who hit just three of their 17 shots from deep.
In terms of efficiency, Barrett did step up in a big way Saturday, responding from an 8-for-30 showing against the Orange by hitting 11 of his 19 looks in the Blue Devils’ statement win. And as long as the Mississauga, Ontario, native is on the floor, do not expect him to shy away from finding his shot just because of what anyone online is saying.
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“I keep going,” Barrett said regarding his shot selection. “It definitely helps when you have the greatest coach of all time telling you to keep going, keep shooting. I love playing for him. I was going to keep shooting. It is what I do.”
On the other hand, Cam Reddish has yet to prove he can consistently produce at a high level. After what seemed like his coming-out party against Florida State, the star freshman sat out the Syracuse loss due to flu-like symptoms and returned to the starting lineup Saturday to post a measly nine points on 3-of-12 shooting. His effectiveness behind the two-headed monster of Williamson and Barrett will be essential if this team truly has what it takes for a deep run come March.
After facing the Panthers, Duke will return home to Cameron Indoor Stadium to battle Georgia Tech on Saturday, continuing its streak of five consecutive unranked opponents before the rematch against Virginia in Charlottesville Feb. 9.