While their classmates scramble to finish the presentations, projects and papers they’ve been putting off for weeks as the semester winds down at Duke, the Blue Devils will be wrapping up a particularly grueling stretch of their own on the court Friday with their second road game in four days.
Just a day after returning from a statement win against No. 11 Michigan State, No. 10 Duke will hit the road again as the Blue Devils travel to Blacksburg, Va., for their first ACC game of the year Friday night at 7 p.m. against Virginia Tech in Cassell Coliseum. The Hokies, who Duke defeated in the Sweet Sixteen last spring in Washington, also took down the then-No. 3 Spartans last week at the Maui Invitational, although Virginia Tech then dropped its final two games in the tournament to enter Friday’s contest on a two-game skid.
“We’re placed in a very difficult situation, our conference put us in a very difficult situation where we’ll get back at four in the morning [Wednesday]. We’re in the toughest week of our academic year, the week before exams, and now we’ve got to go back and the next day, Thursday, fly to Blacksburg,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski after Tuesday night’s game. “It’s really not a good scheduling thing by our conference. And we’ll see how our guys react. Obviously, we’re real pleased with the win [against Michigan State], but now we’ve got to put that behind us very quickly.”
In contrast to the Blue Devils (8-1), Virginia Tech will have had a nine-day break coming into Friday night’s contest, the longest gap between games on the Hokies’ regular season schedule. For a team that lost many of its key pieces from its Sweet Sixteen run, including then-head coach Buzz Williams, the time off after a small skid to close out its time in Maui is surely more than welcome.
Entering this year, Virginia Tech (6-2) was picked to finish near the bottom of the ACC under its new head coach Mike Young, who was plucked from Wofford after Williams opted to become head coach of Texas A&M following last year’s NCAA tournament. However, the Hokies opened the season with a conference win on the road against Clemson and raced out to a 6-0 record following their upset against the Spartans last week. Despite their two recent losses, they have had a far better start to the year than many expected.
Much of their relative success is due to the breakout performance of Landers Nolley II in his redshirt freshman campaign. Nolley, who was named ACC Freshman of the Week twice already this year, is a 6-foot-7 guard who has scored in double-digits in all eight of Virginia Tech’s games. Nolley’s 20 points per game are nearly as many as the next two leading Hokie scorers combined, and his 5.1 rebounds per game also lead the team.
Virginia Tech’s second-most dangerous offensive weapon is Nahiem Alleyne, another freshman who’s gotten off to a quick start in his college career, averaging 11.8 points per game. But while this year’s team is largely about the new faces in Blacksburg, including not just Nolley and Alleyne, but also Jalen Cone, the No. 80 Class of 2019 prospect per ESPN, older players like Wabissa Bede have also been critical parts of the Hokies’ start. Bede, a junior, has dished out 58 assists this year while committing just 13 turnovers in eight games. His 4.46 assist-turnover ratio is good for ninth in the nation.
For comparison, Duke point guard Tre Jones has 67 assists and 32 turnovers so far this year, with at least four turnovers in each of his past four games. Last year, he committed four or more turnovers twice in 36 games and he has already committed more than half his total turnovers from a year ago. Getting Jones back to his usual self will be a priority for the Blue Devils on Friday in the latest test for a team that has already experienced more ups and downs in its first ten games than most other recent Duke teams.
“This is just a different team for us. We don’t have that one guy or two guys that we’ve had each year that can just go and get it. We have to get it together. We’re younger—our freshmen are younger,” Krzyzewski said Tuesday. “I said at the start of the year that this is an old-fashioned team. This is like 15 years ago, when you would hope they would stay together for a few years because, if they stay healthy, they’ll continue to develop. I don’t know how high they’ll develop in this one year—we’re hoping high—but it very much is a different team.”
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