After a blowout win against Notre Dame Saturday, Duke travels to nearby Raleigh to take on N.C. State in perhaps the team's toughest road competition left on its schedule. The Blue Zone breaks down three keys if the Blue Devils want to come away with a victory and remain atop the ACC standings:
Win the battle in the post
The most intriguing individual matchup Wednesday night will be between Vernon Carey Jr. and Wolfpack forward Manny Bates. Carey is third in the ACC with 17.6 points per game, with the freshman big man doing the vast majority of his work right at the rim. Meanwhile, Bates leads the conference in blocks with 3.0 per contest, a mark that also places him eighth nationally.
A common theme throughout Duke's conference slate is Carey feasting on opponents that simply don't have the necessary size to stop him. But with the 6-foot-11 Bates waiting in Raleigh, the Florida native will be tested by one of the best post defenders in the country. If Carey can play the way he did in the Blue Devils' win against the Fighting Irish, a game in which he finished with 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor, a Duke victory would be all but guaranteed. An uptick in his NBA draft stock would likely result as well.
The last time Carey matched up against an elite ACC rim protector, however, James Banks III and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets limited him to just 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting. Duke will need him to produce a bit more than that if it wants to escape with a win Wednesday night.
Clamp down the perimeter
While the Blue Devils' focus offensively will be on winning the battle down low, Duke's defensive focus will hover approximately 20 feet outward. N.C. State's two leading scores this season are its guards: seniors Markell Johnson and C.J. Bryce. If the Blue Devils want to avoid an offensive shootout Wednesday, stopping them will be key.
Johnson is one of the top playmakers in all of college basketball, ranking second in the ACC and 14th nationally with 6.5 assists per game. Tre Jones will likely receive that assignment for the majority of the game. Fellow perimeter menace Jordan Goldwire, meanwhile, will be tasked with mitigating Bryce, whose 14 points per contest lead the Wolfpack.
It seems as if Jones and Goldwire are relied upon almost every game to carry Duke's defensive unit. But if you're the best two defenders on a team whose identity remains on that end of the floor, it's what comes with the job.
Keep raining threes
One of the biggest recent developments for this Blue Devil squad is the play of Alex O'Connell and Joey Baker. After lacking consistency for much of the season, the two sharpshooters appear to have finally figured out how to play alongside one another.
First, it was the end of the North Carolina game, when late treys by both Baker and O'Connell helped fuel Duke's magical comeback in regulation. Then, it was Saturday against Notre Dame, when two separate sequences of back-to-back threes by the pair put the game to bed in the middle of the second half.
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It will be interesting to see if this trend of consistent play continues against N.C. State. If both Baker and O'Connell can prove to be reliable threats from outside, this team can be really dangerous come tournament time. If not, the Blue Devils' lack of options on the offensive end could lead to another disappointing postseason exit.