Last week was not kind to the Blue Devils.
Back-to-back upset losses on the road—each with massive conference and NCAA tournament implications—leaves Duke reeling in a critical stretch leading up to March. And with the Blue Devils uncharacteristically sitting with their backs to the wall, they must regroup quickly if they want to right a ship veering dangerously close to disaster.
Their first step to redemption: a chance to run back one of the most embarrassing conference losses of the season.
No. 7 Duke will take on N.C. State Monday at 7 p.m. in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils will be looking for revenge against a Wolfpack team that throttled Duke by 22 points Feb. 16 behind monster showings from guards Devon Daniels and Markell Johnson.
"I mean, you got to tell them that, even though we didn’t win this one, we got to let it go and move on to the next one," senior captain Jack White said after Saturday's loss to Virginia. "We got a quick turnaround with N.C. State. That’s really how the games are going to be for the most part for the rest of the year, with quick turnarounds and you can’t hold onto a tough loss or a hard-fought win for too long. All we can do is move on to the next play, as much as this one hurts. So we can control what’s in front of us, and that’s N.C. State."
As has been the case in years past, the Wolfpack's game runs through a guard-heavy rotation, and the Blue Devils will need to prioritize taking N.C. State's lethal backcourt out of rhythm.
Led by Daniels and Johnson, the Wolfpack operate by moving fast to either get to the rack or leave the paint open for skilled bigs like D.J. Funderburk. Although none of N.C. State's interior threats are particularly known for their offense, the Wolfpack have the explosiveness to leave sluggish defenses reeling.
Of course, a team with a deadly backcourt will certainly require a staunch defensive effort from the likes of Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire. However, the difference-maker for the Blue Devils will likely come in their ability to guard the interior.
Although the Wolfpack lit Duke up from the perimeter in their last meeting, the Blue Devils can likely take solace that N.C. State won't arrive with as hot of a hand as before, as they sit among the worst 3-point shooting teams in the nation.
Instead, Duke must use its size advantage to neutralize N.C. State's bread-and-butter slashing and interior drives.
Outside of go-to big man Vernon Carey Jr., the Blue Devils will need one of Javin DeLaurier, Matthew Hurt or White to step up in boxing out and protecting the rim. With Carey fouling out of Duke's last two contests, the Blue Devils saw first hand the potential trouble of lacking any true depth in their bigs. If DeLaurier, White or Hurt can't find a rhythm on the inside, expect a long night for Duke.
"Anytime you don't have Vernon on the court just like if you don't have Tre on the court, we're not as good a team," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday. "Because those two guys are the differentiators of us being good or very good, but I thought [Carey] played really hard today. [DeLaurier] competed like crazy, he’s just got to learn how to do that all the time."
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With just two regular season contests left, the Blue Devils have very little time to put together a case for a top-two seed for the NCAA tournament selection committee. And although Monday's contest offers a perfect opportunity for Duke to bounce back, the Blue Devils must come out swinging to avoid having their already precarious situation sink further.
"[Our number one goal is to] just win," freshman forward Wendell Moore Jr. said Saturday. "We want to change the outcome of the game. Like I said, we fought today. We played winning basketball, we made the plays to win, but at the end of the day things didn’t fall our way today. So Monday, we just want to change the outcome and win the game."