After a double bye, Duke opens up ACC Tournament play against a familiar opponent, with a familiar face expected to return from injury. The Blue Zone looks at three aspects of the game that could be crucial for the Blue Devils in securing a victory:
Get Zion up to speed
After three weeks away from the basketball court with a grade one knee sprain, freshman forward Zion Williamson is expected to make his much-awaited return to the Blue Devil lineup Thursday night. Three weeks is a long time to be away from the speed and physicality of the college basketball court, so Williamson will no doubt be eager to get involved early. Getting him back to performing like the ACC Player of the Year that he is, with averages of 21.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 2.2 steals per game, will be essential for Duke to not only win this game but potentially the whole thing.
In his absence, Duke has at times struggled mightily to generate offense and become reliant on the three ball, which is clearly not its strong suit—in two games against the Orange, the Blue Devils shot 18-of-72 from deep. Williamson’s return should take some pressure off freshmen R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish while shifting Duke’s offense more towards the paint. His powerful presence inside, along with his dominating defensive ability, should be all the difference between the brilliant Blue Devil squad that was ranked No. 1 for so many weeks and the lackluster team that has struggled as of late.
Stop the three ball
Likely playing without star guard Tyus Battle, who suffered a hip injury in the Orange’s final regular season game against Clemson last Saturday, Syracuse’s best chance to pull off an upset will be through 3-point shooting. Replacing Battle and his team-leading 17.2 points per game in Wednesday night’s victory against Pittsburgh was freshman guard Buddy Boeheim, head coach Jim Boeheim’s son. His career-high 20 points included three 3-pointers, as the Orange converted on 12 triples total to put away the Panthers 73-59.
Syracuse will likely look to a similar offensive game plan against the Blue Devils, as threes have been a recipe for success this season. In their 95-91 victory against Duke, the Orange made 11-of-25 from distance and they shot 14-of-31 from beyond the arc in their near-upset against North Carolina. However, Syracuse was held to just 5-of-23 in its last meeting with the Blue Devils, who will seek to emulate that kind of defensive performance Thursday night.
Most importantly, Duke must keep in mind what’s at stake here. With at least a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament likely locked up, the Blue Devils should play hard as they fight for a potential No. 1 seed but be cautious at the same time. After losing junior center Marques Bolden for at least the ACC Tournament in last Saturday’s match against North Carolina, the last thing Duke can afford is yet another injury.
At full strength, the Blue Devils are nearly unstoppable—as Coach K noted a few games ago, the only true loss the team has had at full health was against Gonzaga, way back in November at the Maui Invitational. The Orange were able to barely squeak by in overtime in their victory with Reddish and freshman guard Tre Jones sidelined, and they made it competitive but couldn’t finish the job in last month’s 75-65 loss without Williamson. With nearly all hands-on deck this time around, Duke will look to stamp out a convincing win before a potential rematch in the semifinals with North Carolina.
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