It appears that the Blue Devils have turned the corner in the past two weeks, but a formidable in-state rival will march into Cameron Indoor Stadium Sunday at 2 p.m.
With Duke coming out on top in four of its previous five games, a visit from No. 7 North Carolina State will be a true barometer for how the Blue Devils have improved on both ends of the floor.
According to head coach Joanne P. McCallie, the grind of the ACC schedule keeps her team focused on the task at hand.
“These games just come at you and you’ve got to tackle each one of them,” McCallie said after Duke's win against Georgia Tech.
The Wolfpack (20-1, 9-1 in the ACC) have been dominant both within the ACC and outside the conference so far this season thanks to a stingy perimeter defense and an efficient offensive attack. With Sunday’s matchup being an opportunity for Duke to improve its resume as the entire country prepares for the stretch run towards March Madness, here are a couple things to key in on.
N.C. State outscores its opponents by an average of 20.2 points per game, ranking 11th nationally. This is due in large part to an aggressive and disciplined defense that creates deflections and protects the paint at a high level. By only allowing 54.5 points per game, the Wolfpack have ensured that if they can shoot the ball at merely an average level, they will almost assuredly find themselves on the positive side of any given matchup.
The Wolfpack play fundamental man-to-man with elite help defense, which allows them to limit a team to one side of the floor on a given possesion. In terms of their perimeter defense, they often trap a playmaker coming off a screen to force the ball out of their hands. This strategy will apply to both Leaonna Odom and Haley Gorecki, as both can create their own shot and provide opportunities for their teammates off the ball. If Miela Goodchild can provide a spark from the outside, it will force the Wolfpack to adjust how much it packs the paint on the defensive end.
N.C. State forces most of the opposition’s offensive action to develop from outside the paint by fronting the low post against standout forwards and centers. As a result, the Wolfpack’s help defenders are able to sit in perfect position and take advantage of any miscues in execution. With 6.7 steals per contest, the Wolfpack capitalize on poor spacing and generate transition opportunities. Due to its relentless perimeter defense, N.C. State puts stress on opponents the second the ball crosses half court.
Give me some space
On the other end of the floor, spacing is the name of the game for N.C. State. With an offense revolving around four-out sets and shooters always being ready to fire from distance, the Wolfpack pose issues for opponents trying to defend both the pick and roll and dribble drives. With constant rotation off the ball, N.C. State creates wide open perimeter looks by simply working it inside and swinging the ball.
Against zone, the Wolfpack exploit holes by playing inside-out motion offense through the high post. If the Blue Devils choose to slow the game down by setting up in a 2-3, they will need to extend it in order to prevent N.C. State from getting clean attempts from the perimeter by simply swinging the ball from wing to wing. If Duke is to give Gorecki and Odom enough opportunities to create against unstructured defense in transition, it must rotate effectively and prevent the Wolfpack from continuing a season long trend of creating second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass.
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Throughout the season, Duke has put together elite play in spurts, but the Blue Devils must play forty minutes of team basketball in all aspects to force the issue against N.C. State.
"Playing our game from the beginning and matching that intensity for the entire game is key for us,” Gorecki said.
Duke must excel from a details perspective. Each 50-50 ball will require gritty hustle, every outside shot must be attempted with conviction, and situational moments, especially out-of-bounds underneath sets, will require savvy execution. With the Wolfpack rolling into Durham as one of the most consistent teams in the country, Duke must bring its A+ game to the Sunday afternoon tilt.