Duke is coming off of perhaps the greatest Tobacco Road rivalry game ever played.
But with a top-10 matchup looming right around the corner, the Blue Devils don’t have much time to celebrate.
Tre Jones, Wendell Moore Jr. and No. 7 Duke return home Monday night to take on No. 8 Florida State in Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Blue Devils’ first top-10 matchup since they defeated Kansas in the Champions Classic. While a game like Saturday night’s can be both mentally and physically wearing, the manner in which Duke won will surely help its mental toughness as it continues the second half of its ACC slate.
“Our will to win, our toughness,” Jones said after the win against North Carolina. “We put in so much time and effort. We all had the same mentality at that point: that we weren't losing, that we were going to win this game. No matter what it took, we were going to win. So, down the stretch, we continued to pursue that, continued to just try to make play after play.”
With 7-foot-4 center Chris Koumadje having graduated, Florida State (20-3, 10-2 in the ACC) is a different team than year’s past. The Seminoles’ tallest player in their starting lineup this season is 6-foot-9, which means only one thing—it’s Vernon Carey Jr.’s time to shine.
The freshman center was the Blue Devils’ only consistent source of offense in the first half against the Tar Heels, scoring 18 points over the first 20 minutes. He struggled in the second half, however, scoring no points before fouling out with four minutes left in regulation.
While Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton may experiment with his two 7-footers off the bench in an attempt to contain him, Carey’s ability to stay on the floor and produce when he’s on it will be essential either way for Duke (20-3, 10-2).
Another developing story line for this year’s Blue Devil squad is what has come to be known as “Tre Stones.” Jones received heavy criticism following Duke’s loss to Louisville for proving unable to be the team’s late-game closer, but the sophomore point guard has quickly silenced the doubters over the past week.
Jones scored eight points in the final six minutes of the Blue Devils’ narrow win at Boston College. Then came Saturday night, when Duke’s unquestioned leader etched his name into program lore.
Monday night’s game is going to be a close one, so the Blue Devils are going to need “Stones” to repeat his performance against the Seminoles in last year’s ACC championship game.
“Tre was magnificent,” Moore said of Jones’ performance against the Tar Heels. “This was his best game because he not only scored and hit big buckets, but his will and his passion permeated throughout this whole team. It made us one and it gave us a chance to hang in there and win.”
To stop Florida State’s offense, stopping guard Devin Vassell will be key. The Georgia native only averaged 4.5 points as a freshman last year, but has elevated his game during his sophomore campaign to become his team’s go-to scoring option, leading the Seminoles with 13.5 points per game on 50.4 percent shooting from the floor and 41.9 percent from three.
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With Florida State point guard Trent Forrest second on the team at 11.3 points per contest, don’t be surprised if Jones and Jordan Goldwire spend a majority of Monday evening on the floor together, setting the example for Duke on the defensive end.
“[Jones] was at another level tonight—we won because of that kid,” Krzyzewski said Saturday. “I thought anything he did tonight might work. He was so good at timeouts—we’re trying to get him to talk more and his positive talk, ‘we’re going to win; we’ve got this; you can count on me.’ The kids responded to him. We’ve been talking about it, and now he learned it in combat.”
After surviving its toughest road stretch of the season, Duke now sits firmly alongside Florida State and Louisville in a three-headed ACC race. The Blue Devils haven’t even taken home a share of the conference regular season crown since 2010, with the team’s last outright title coming in 2006. A win against the Seminoles is a must if Duke wants any of those numbers to change.