The Blue Devils are coming off of their biggest win of the year, an overtime win against a Virginia Tech team that would be in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today.
They will follow up that key win by welcoming Notre Dame to Cameron Indoor Stadium at 8 p.m.Thursday. In any other year, that’d be a nightmare for a good-but-not-great Duke squad. But the Fighting Irish have spent the 2019-2020 season enduring worse and worse losses, their most recent a 34-point drubbing at the hands of a North Carolina State team that just lost to a middling North Carolina squad. With Notre Dame's inferior resume, the Blue Devils have a shot to start building a winning streak.
What’s different about this Notre Dame team?
It takes an enormous combination of factors for a team to tumble from back-to-back NCAA tournament championship game appearances to ACC cellar-dweller status.
Injuries to key players, including a knee sprain that sidelined star center Mikayla Vaughn for over a month, have forced bench players and freshmen to play extended minutes for Notre Dame. Those are minutes that would’ve gone to more heralded backups in the past, except many of those heralded backups have transferred to other programs. Players like Erin Boley and Ali Patberg would be much-needed starters for the Fighting Irish (6-11, 1-4 in the ACC), but are instead starting on ranked teams elsewhere.
In the meanwhile, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is trying to develop freshmen and graduate students with limited prior experience on the fly. That’s led to poor rebounding and erratic defense, both of which are important against a team like Duke (8-8, 2-3 in the ACC) that often struggles to create its own offense. But after the Blue Devils introduced screens into their offense against the Hokies, the Fighting Irish defense could bleed points to Duke on pick-and-pop plays.
What’s stopping a Duke blowout?
Looking at the talent and schemes on the court, it’s not hard to imagine the Blue Devils racing out to a first-quarter lead and not looking back. But it’d be foolhardy to count out a team coached by McGraw, especially one playing a Duke team that only last week choked away a late lead to Virginia.
The good news for the Blue Devil defense is that Notre Dame doesn’t have a plethora of off-ball shooters like Virginia or FGCU, so it's likely the defense can hold its own. The biggest challenge is Vaughn, a promising scorer in the paint and the post, two places where Duke tends to rely on team defense more than individual defense. She flashed upside last year and is still adjusting to a featured role, but if everything clicks, she’ll be hard for this team to stop.
On the other end of the court, the Blue Devils need to continue to develop the sets they ran last week to really be able to take advantage of the Fighting Irish. Haley Gorecki’s drives and Mikayla Boykin’s crossovers will be necessary if it comes down to crunch time, but taking control of this game will necessitate forcing Notre Dame’s greener players into and out of switches that they still haven’t mastered. If Duke can manage that, there’s not much preventing it from getting back above .500.
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