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Duke men's basketball set for a Saturday night date with Syracuse and its vaunted zone

Both Matthew Hurt and Jordan Goldwire will be critical in busting Syracuse's vaunted zone.
Both Matthew Hurt and Jordan Goldwire will be critical in busting Syracuse's vaunted zone.

After an emotional victory Tuesday night that featured the Blue Devils holding off a late Pittsburgh comeback and a brief tiff between head coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Cameron Crazies, Duke will head up to New York to play Syracuse at the vaunted Carrier Dome looking for its third straight victory Saturday night ay 8 p.m.

As most Blue Devil fans know, a date with the Orange means a date with their stifling 2-3 zone. The zone defense will force No. 9 Duke to be smart with the ball at the foul-line-extended and to be able to knock down shots from deep. 

“Zones tend to try to stand you up, take you out of your offense or whatever,” sophomore point guard Tre Jones said. “So just try to continue to move the ball, get the ball inside, but everyone being ready for the shots there as well.”

Last year, R.J. Barrett played a critical role in Duke's 75-65 road win, posting 30 points, seven assists and five rebounds while largely manning the central area of the Orange zone. Although no player on this team comps well to Barrett’s multi-faceted skill set, a duo of Duke freshman will be critical to keeping the offense flowing. 

Vernon Carey will look to pound the ball inside, where Syracuse (13-8, 6-4 in the ACC) has struggled to defend due to its lack of frontcourt depth. With Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe in foul trouble Tuesday night against Clemson, the Orange coughed up a 10-point lead in the second half en route to a 71-70 loss that snapped a five-game winning streak. If Carey can get Syracuse’s bigs back on the pine, it will go a long way for the Duke offense. 

“It’s extremely huge for us because that’s how we play. We are going to play through him [Carey],” Jones said. “When he’s one-on-one down there, he’s not stopped so just continue to play through him when they’re helping off of him.”

The freshman center leads the ACC at 6.7 free throws per game and will look to improve his accuracy from the charity stripe. Carey has shot below 70 percent from the line in eight of the last nine games and is coming off a 3-of--6 performance against the Panthers. Along with improved shooting, the Southwest Ranches, Fla., native will need to be smart handling double teams down low if the zone crashes onto him. Carey coughed up the ball seven times over the Blue Devils' loses to Clemson and Louisville and Duke needs him to do a better job taking care of the ball. 

The other freshman who will likely play a critical role is sharpshooting forward Matthew Hurt. With the Rochester, Minn., native’s ability to play both inside and connect from the outside, the freshman will be a swiss-army knife cutting through the zone. Hurt leads the team in 3-point-percentage (minimum of 15 attempts) at 42.3 percent and has attempted more than four deep balls in four of the last six games.

Duke (17-3, 7-2) is shooting the ball at 36.4 percent clip from deep, contributing to 32.4 percent of their makes. If Hurt continues to connect and the Blue Devils get timely makes from unlikely shooters like Jordan Goldwire, who knocked down three 3-pointers Tuesday, the Orange defense will have a tough time limiting Duke. 

“[Goldwire’s shooting's] definitely huge for us. The way he’s able to play on the defensive end, everyone knows about that. But the work he’s put in to get his offense there as well,” Jones said. “When they’re helping off him which they did tonight, he’s ready and he has the confidence, we all have the confidence in him to step up and hit those shots.”

Defensively, the Blue Devils will have to hone in on stopping Elijah Hughes. Hughes is the second highest scorer in the ACC at 19.3 points per game, and despite being listed as a forward, can do a little bit of everything. The junior averages 5.2 rebounds per game and 4.1 assists per game, also connecting on 37.3 percent of shots from deep. 

If Duke can limit the heart of the Orange offense in Hughes while keeping the ball moving on the other end of the floor, it should be able to start its road trip off on a winning note. After Syracuse, the Blue Devils will stay in the Northeast to play Boston College next Tuesday before returning to its home state to face off against North Carolina in the first edition of the Tobacco Road Rivalry this decade.

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