Nineteen years ago, St. John’s upset the then-No. 2 Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium, winning 83-82.
From that day onwards Duke has not dropped a nonconference home contest, extending the streak to 146 games with a win against Princeton in December.
The Blue Devils will find themselves in a similar situation—ranked second in the country playing the Red Storm—looking to push their streak to next season. However, if Duke hopes to come out victorious Saturday afternoon, it will need to stop Shamorie Ponds.
The senior from Brooklyn has a knack for performing at the highest level in the biggest of games, dropping 33 points against the Blue Devils in St. John's 81-77 victory at Madison Square Garden last year and averaging 20.9 points per game this season. Ponds has topped 30 points 10 times in the past two seasons.
Tasked with stopping Ponds will be freshman guard Tre Jones. The Apple Valley, Minn., native is arguably one of the top on-ball defenders in the country averaging 2.0 steals per game. After returning from a two game hiatus with a shoulder injury, Jones has looked like his old self, registering three steals and nine assists over 61 minutes of action in Duke’s last two victories. He is the only player in the nation averaging more than five assists per game, two steals per game and an assist-to turnover-ratio greater than five.
“We just keep working it and we are trying to play hard defensively. When we lost Tre for three games, whatever habits we had before then, they are not solid yet and when you adjust and adapt with him not being in there,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said following the win over Notre Dame. “But now he is back and the kids are working at it.”
Aside from stopping Ponds, the Blue Devils (18-2) will have to continue running their opponents off the arc. Duke is 14th in the country in three-point defense, allowing its opponents to connect on just 29.2 percent of their treys. The Red Storm (16-5) have shot 40.8 percent from deep in their victories this season on more than 10 deep balls per game.
St. John's started the season 14-1 and entered the top 25, in part of its strong shooting from deep. However, in four losses in the subsequent five games, the Red Storm connected on just 30.8 percent of its attempts. The Blue Devils will have to hone in on Mustapha Heron—a transfer from Auburn—who is shooting 43 percent from deep and averaging 15.5 points per contest.
Offensively, Duke should have no problem turning to the lethal duo of Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. Williamson has converted on an astounding 68.1 percent of shots, standing alone as the only player averaging better than 20 points per game and hitting at a rate of at least 60 percent. According to Sports Reference, since the 2009-10 season, Williamson’s 43.4 player efficiency rating is 6.46 points higher than the next closest—John Brown from High Point— equivalent to the difference between Brown and the No. 81 player on the ranking.
“I’m just in the gym after practice putting in some extra work, and I think it’s showing with my jumper,” Williamson said. “I think we’re coming together as a team right now, so we just have to keep getting better.”
With Barrett averaging 23.5 points per game, the duo are the only teammates averaging more than 20 points per game this season. Moreover, despite struggling with consistency on his shot, fellow freshman Cam Reddish has been playing impressive defense—leading the team in steals—and is shooting 44 percent from deep when Duke trails, is tied, or leads by six in the second half.
“They just want to win and they are really happy for one another. It is quite obvious that Zion makes spectacular plays on both ends of the court. Sometimes his defense is overshadowed by some of the dunks he has but they want him to be good and he wants the other guys to be good,” Krzyzewski said. “R.J. has been a warrior for us and late in the game we went to Cam a little bit more. They are in it for the four letters on the front of their jerseys there is no question.”
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The Blue Devils should have no problem scoring at home against St. John’s. However, if they wish to extend the country’s longest home nonconference win streak, the defense will need to step up once again.