After riding high after a dominant start to its ACC slate, the Blue Devils came crashing down to Earth Tuesday night with a loss to an unranked Clemson team.
And with its first ranked matchup in over a month on the horizon, No. 3 Duke must show not just the resiliency to bounce back from defeat, but the intensity to defend its home court against a No. 11 Louisville team hungry for a statement win.
Saturday evening's contest against the Cardinals is slated as the Blue Devils' first true marquee conference meeting of the season. Here are five things to watch for as two ACC powers clash.
Omer Yurtseven, Aamir Simms and James Banks III are all names that should keep the Blue Devils up at night. Duke has struggled all season to contain dynamic bigs, and if the Blue Devils aren't prepared, Louisville's Jordan Nwora may be next on that list.
A terror to defend on all levels of the floor, the 6-foot-7 Nwora leads the Cardinals with 20.4 points per game and shoots a red-hot 44.0 percent from downtown. Add in two hulking interior presences in Steven Enoch and Dwayne Sutton and the Cardinals have all of the pieces needed to beat the Blue Devils in the paint and clean up on the glass.
The key for Duke headed into this matchup will be the defensive prowess of Jack White, Javin DeLaurier and Vernon Carey Jr. Without Wendell Moore Jr.'s length and quickness to slow down Nwora and Sutton, the Blue Devils will need White and DeLaurier to step up as defensive leaders inside and take off some of the pressure on Carey, who has struggled at times to maintain his defensive intensity.
Battle of the half-court
Back in 2019, the Blue Devils pulled off a historic comeback against the Cardinals by relentlessly hounding Louisville's guards. Luckily for Duke, the Blue Devils may be able to exploit the same weakness to seal the game this year.
While the Cardinals' backcourt trio of Darius Perry, Ryan McMahon and Lamarr Kimble are serviceable at getting the ball inside and keeping the Cardinal offense moving, they all have struggled through the season in limiting turnovers. If the Blue Devils can use its dynamic defensive backcourt of Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire to disrupt Louisville's ball movement and force the visiting team into iso situations, Duke may be able to slow the Cardinals' offense enough to grab a much-needed win.
Danger from downtown
While Louisville's length has been a key factor in shutting down many of its opponents throughout the season, the Cardinals have not been particularly adept at defending the perimeter. Since its loss to Florida State, Louisville has struggled to slow teams outside, leading to a slew of too close for comfort matchups against middling ACC opponents.
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With Cassius Stanley and Jones emerging as legitimate 3-point threats and White and Matthew Hurt demanding constant attention from outside, the Blue Devils on paper have the tools they need to bury the Cardinals. If Joey Baker is able to make his way back onto the floor after missing Duke's matchup against Clemson due to an ankle sprain, the Blue Devils will have yet another weapon in their arsenal to burn Louisville form deep.
Struggles with easy buckets
If there was one play that was emblematic of Duke's night against the Tigers, it was Goldwire grabbing a steal with just five seconds left before the half, only to miss the wide-open breakaway layup. Throughout the evening, the Blue Devils bricked easy layups and putbacks, squashing any chance Duke had at a comeback victory. Against a more defensively minded team in Louisville, Duke must capitalize on every opportunity it can get to build a lead.
Even more concerning for the Blue Devils is Duke's woes from the free throw line. Sitting at just 66.5 percent on the season, Duke has left countless points on the table thanks to ugly free throw shooting. With a top-tier conference opponent at their doorstep, the Blue Devils can't afford to leave easy points on the table.
Throughout nonconference play, Duke made a name for itself with its versatility and depth allowing for the Blue Devils to adapt to any opponent that gave them struggles. However, with Moore out and Baker listed as day-to-day, Duke doesn't have the luxury of weak links on an already thinned bench.
If the Blue Devils are to come away with a win, Duke needs everyone to be engaged and involved from the opening tip to the final buzzer. The Blue Devils fell to Clemson largely because the likes of Hurt and Alex O'Connell struggled on both sides of the ball, preventing Duke from substituting easily and leaving the Blue Devils on the floor gassed.
With a roster lacking in star talent and instead excelling in team play and chemistry, Duke can't sustain its usual route of a six or seven-man rotation in conference play. No matter whose number is called to start or come off the bench, every Blue Devil must be ready to pour in meaningful minutes to allow Duke to maintain its high-level of execution.