One game has defined Duke's season so far.
One game, and two plays. You know them—the Tre Jones chest pass at the rim and the buzzer-beating putback layup by Wendell Moore Jr. to polish off the Tar Heels last Saturday. When Duke eked out a five-point victory against eighth-ranked Florida State two days later, it seemed trivial in comparison to the miracle at the Dean Smith Center.
But the seventh-ranked Blue Devils still have seven ACC games left on their regular-season slate, and this season, everybody has a shot against everybody else. Notre Dame, whom Duke faces 4 p.m. Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, has had more shots than anyone. The Fighting Irish are a wild card—the Blue Devils might need to borrow a blowtorch from their classmates to put under their seats. After all, Duke students apparently have them in spades.
"Coming in from [the North Carolina game] was an unreal experience," said freshman forward Wendell Moore Jr. regarding the attempted bench burning and welcome brigade on campus. "Those whole 48 hours are something that most teams would take really differently than we did."
The support from the Cameron Crazies continued Monday against the Seminoles, though head coach Mike Krzyzewski was skeptical of the crowd's energy.
"The fans have been great all year," junior guard Jordan Goldwire said Friday. "To have the kind of excitement that they had and to come back on Monday and have the same sort of energy—it means a lot to have that support."
Notre Dame (15-9, 6-7 in the ACC) has experienced more close shaves against ACC's top dogs than anyone else. It just has been on the wrong end of those games. The Fighting Irish lost by three points to No. 5 Louisville, by one to No. 8 Florida State and by one to Virginia. Notre Dame did beat Syracuse by one in early January—before losing to the Orange by two in a rematch at the end of the month.
It's a classic Irish basketball blight. Still, the luck of the Irish hasn't run out entirely. Senior forwards John Mooney and Juwan Durham have been excellent pillars supporting Notre Dame. Mooney is one of 30 Naismith Player of the Year candidates in the country, averaging 16.3 points and 13 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-11 Durham makes almost as big of an impact. He plays fewer than 20 minutes per game but grabs 5.3 boards and swats 2.2 shots per contest.
"Mooney is one of the best players not just in the ACC, but the country," Moore said. "Obviously, he's a key guy. We want to keep them off of the 3-point line and contain their bigs."
Duke (21-3, 11-2) is championed by its own pair of star big men, but they lack considerable experience. Freshman center Vernon Carey Jr. has garnered national attention with steady low-post play. Fellow first-year forward Matthew Hurt took a step forward by nailing a pair of step-back treys Monday against the Seminoles as part of a 12-point campaign. It'll be a battle of young guns against the seasoned veterans Saturday afternoon.
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey served as an assistant coach for Krzyzewski, but he hasn't experienced the same success in South Bend, Ind., as he did in Durham. This season is no exception. For some reason—maybe luck, maybe cruel fate, maybe a combination—the Fighting Irish have played to the level of every opponent they have faced this season, though often ceding the final score.
"They're a very well-coached team, a disciplined team," Goldwire said. "They take a good amount of 3-pointers. They have good bigs, good guards... they're a very good team."
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Notre Dame may look soft and sound French, but it is not to be trifled with. Eventually, the team will get its storybook ending, as the Blue Devils did a week ago at the Dean Smith Center.
For now, Duke should not throw caution to the wind, especially not with the blowtorches—lest they bake themselves into a delectable Blue Devil brûlée.