When Duke and St. John's linked up at Madison Square Garden a little less than a year ago, nobody expected much from the Red Storm. After all, Chris Mullin's squad entered that matchup on an 11-game losing streak and without a win in conference play.
So, of course St. John's found a way to right the ship and knock off the No. 4 team in the nation that afternoon in the Big Apple.
But if not for their superstar, the Red Storm wouldn't have had a shot to pull the stunner. Shamorie Ponds, then just a sophomore, played all 40 minutes and scored a game-high 33 points on 12-of-23 shooting.
Ponds undoubtedly provided the game's biggest shot, hitting a tough, fadeaway triple with the shot clock about to expire in the final minute of the St John's win.
The Blue Devils would get a 3-pointer from Grayson Allen on their next trip, but could not tie the game and send things to overtime.
This Duke team, however, is drastically different. All five Blue Devil starters from last year are gone, and the now-junior trio of Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier and Jack White combined for just 20 minutes in last year's game. The Red Storm return Ponds as well as Justin Simon and Marvin Clark—Tariq Owens is now with Texas Tech after transferring.
Ponds, nonetheless, is the linchpin for St. John's. Although his 20.6 points per game are a tick below where he was last season, the junior is shooting a career-best 48.7 percent from the field and 38.0 percent from long distance. He isn't the leading scorer in the Big East—that title goes to Marquette's Markus Howard—yet he'll still get his.
The difference is that this Duke team can defend.
Remember, last year, the Blue Devils ultimately switched into a 2-3 zone during the latter portion of the season. Gary Trent Jr., Trevon Duval and Marvin Bagley III were all below average defenders, so when Duke had to deal with Ponds and the Red Storm, they were still struggling in their man-to-man scheme.
That won't be the case this time around. Without a doubt, freshman Tre Jones will be matched up with Ponds. That's as good of a matchup as you're going to get this season.
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Jones should be able to put the clamps on Ponds—at least to an extent—and so long as the Blue Devils can keep him contained, Duke won't have too many issues winning the rest of its individual battles. St. John's doesn't go very deep, playing only three guys off its bench for 10 or more minutes a game.
Obviously, the Blue Devils will not be able to give away easy points. Ponds has shown that he can also be a tenacious defender, and the junior has no problem turning opponents' mistakes into transition buckets.
What will be most intriguing, though, is how Duke deals with its switches on ball screens. Against Virginia, the Blue Devils chose to switch 1 through 5, often leaving Bolden matched up with one of the Cavaliers' guards.
It's possible we could see the same vs. the Red Storm, but it also wouldn't be surprising to see Bolden to stick with his man with the other four players switching on every screen. Bagley had problems keeping up with Ponds, and Bolden—not being the most fleet of foot—would probably suffer a similar fate.
But if Duke does decide to not switch, the Blue Devils should try to hedge and prevent Ponds from getting too much space as the New Yorker doesn't need much room to pull the trigger.
Amidst a busy and challenging ACC slate, St. John's will certainly not be a respite—mostly because of Ponds—as Duke hopes to keep a 19-year streak of home nonconference wins intact.