After 16 home games that saw the young Duke squad drop just two injury-marred contests, the Blue Devils will play their final game in Cameron Indoor Stadium Tuesday.
The evening matchup against in-state rival Wake Forest will be the last time the Cameron Crazies will cheer on seniors Antonio Vrankovic and Brennan Besser, and most likely the last time they'll see freshmen phenoms R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones—all of whom are expected to depart for the NBA.
Although it will certainly be an emotional night, No. 4 Duke must make sure to take care of business against a middling Demon Deacon squad hoping to keep its outside chance for an ACC regular season title—its first since 2010—alive and remain in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament bracket.
The last time these two squads faced off in Winston-Salem, the Blue Devils took care of business easily with Williamson stuffing the stat sheet with 30 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals on just 16 total shots and 75 percent shooting from deep in an 87-65 win. However, his status for the game as he recovers from a knee sprain remains uncertain.
"It is still day-to-day but he is in phase four of a four-phase program and it is just a matter of how long he stays in it and we feel comfortable. We had another good day of therapy and band work and conditioning yesterday," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said in the ACC's weekly teleconference Monday.
Without the services of Williamson, Barrett has stepped up his play as of last and has proven his mettle not only as a high-volume scorer but also a smart decision-maker and all-around playmaker and teammate, even battling through a stomach virus in the hard-fought Virginia Tech loss. Barrett is averaging 25.8 points over the last four contests, but more importantly, is pulling down eight rebounds and dishing out just under six assists over the same time frame to make up for Williamson’s presence on the boards and impressive court vision.
"I think on how to use his [Barrett] talents with his teammates. His passing has improved and he really is as good a passer as we have," Krzyzweski said. "And his defensive rebounding and his leadership - he's been our most durable guy. He has played every game and the most minutes."
Barrett’s ability as a distributor comes at a time when Jones has been struggling with shooting and turnovers. Although the freshman floor general is still the unquestioned conductor of the offense, Jones has turned the ball over three-plus times thrice in the last four contests, after doing so just three times over the first 25 games. Shooting just 23.7 percent from the field over this stretch, Jones has really not been his full self on the offensive side.
Nonetheless, defensively, Jones has continued to be a National Defensive Player of the Year Candidate. After locking up the likes of Ashton Hagans, Shamorie Ponds and Ty Jerome, the hounding guard registered yet another savant-like performance against Miami Saturday afternoon. Jones held Hurricanes’ leading scorer Chris Lykes to just four points while collecting six steals—tying a season-high from the Texas Tech game.
"We focused on playing at our pace. We knew they would try to slow it down and make it more of a half-court game. But starting on defense, we wanted to make them faster than they wanted to," Jones said after Miami.
Jones will be tasked with limiting Wake Forest’s Brandon Childress, who averages 14.6 points per game on 37.4 percent shooting from deep. In the last matchup in January, Childress had just 12 points on 33 percent shooting from the field—a testament to the Blue Devils defensive intensity. While Duke (25-4, 13-3 in the ACC) boasts a top-five offensive and defense in efficiency, the Demon Deacons have struggled in all facets of their game this season.
Although Wake Forest typically overshadows an average defense with a potent offense—it had a top-10 and top-75 offensive efficiency in 2017 and 2018, respectively—the Demon Deacons (11-17, 4-12) have fallen outside of the top 150 on the offensive side this year, averaging just 11 assists, while their defense ranks 227th.
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"Our big guys are playing well—Marques had another really nice game and Javin, they’re playing well. Alex did another good job," Krzyzweski said. "We’ll get back at it the Tuesday game, and it’s hard to believe it’s our final home game. We need to keep trying to get better."
On paper, this looks like an easy tune-up for the Blue Devils as they prepare for revenge against No. 3 North Carolina Saturday in Chapel Hill. However, with senior night festivities and emotions running high—and an outside possibility of Williamson briefly entering the contest to receive a final standing ovation from the Duke faithful—the Blue Devils must remain sharp to ensure Saturday’s showdown has real ACC and NCAA seeding implications.