Of the ACC's bevy of good-but-not-great teams scraping it out behind the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Virginia, N.C. State is one of the most difficult to read.
On one hand, this is the Wolfpack squad that put up a measly 24 points against Virginia Tech just a under two weeks ago. On the other, N.C. State has since then dropped 96 on the Tar Heels, survived a scrappy road game against Pittsburgh and handled Syracuse at home with ease. And although home court advantage and advanced metrics would put Duke as the unanimous favorites for Saturday evening, the Blue Devils must remain wary of which side of the Wolfpack comes to town.
No. 2 Duke will face off against N.C. State Saturday at 6 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Although the Blue Devils are coming off one of the most impressive comebacks in program history against Louisville, Duke must remember to not make the same mistakes that put it in a 23-point hole to begin with, or else the Wolfpack may claim their third straight win over a ranked Blue Devil squad.
"As good as [the Louisville win] was, we need to look forward to tomorrow night," junior captain Jack White said. "We've had a good couple days of preparation so we're ready to get after it tomorrow."
For Duke to succeed Saturday evening, the Blue Devils must apply the same pressure on N.C. State's guards as they did against Louisville to prevent the visiting team from making a run.
The Wolfpack's guard-heavy lineup has made life difficult for conference foes with a lineup that's quick on its feet and deadly accurate from long range. Braxton Beverly, Markell Johnson and C.J. Daniels headline N.C. State's offense as consistent threats from beyond the arc, each making treys within one percent of 40.0 shooting.
Beverly in particular has been known to go off when the Wolfpack need him most, going 4-for-8 against the Orange to give his team a comfortable cushion. If Duke can't a clamp on N.C. Sate's shooters, the Blue Devils may face yet another down to the wire slugfest, this time in their home court.
"The younger guys are motivated enough, especially to stay in control of the conference with our standings," White said on defending home court. "We've just got to take care of business and treat every game the same in terms of our preparation. We've got to get out the same unit, get out the same emotion every game and give the same effort and attention for detail."
Luckily for Duke, the Wolfpack have a clear disadvantage in terms of size, giving the home team easy pickings in the paint on both sides of the ball. Outside of D.J. Funderburk, who's power and energy off the bench has been equally matched by his propensity for errors, have a relatively mediocre front court—something the likes of Zion Williamson and Marques Bolden will be able to take full advantage of.
Although the Wolfpack have decent enough shot blockers where R.J. Barrett signature drives to the basket may be stymied, N.C. State's post players simply lack the physicality to compete with Duke's starting front court. The key for the Blue Devils to blowing the game open will have to come from solid floor spacing. If Barrett and Cam Reddish can put enough pressure from deep, Duke's finishers will have a cake walk to the rim.
As the Blue Devils continue through their daunting ACC gauntlet, Duke may be tempted to look ahead at its upcoming contest against North Carolina just next week. However, if the Blue Devils want to stay on top of their conference, Duke can't let their other Triangle Area rival sneak by for a disappointing upset.
"Obviously, these sorts of games have an impact. I'd be lying if I said they didn't," White said. "This kind of latter stage in the conference for us, we're playing top-tier teams every game. We've just got to be up and about for every game. Especially for this patch, we've got to take it one day at a time, one game at a time."
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