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Duke men's basketball set to host Pittsburgh to begin ACC gauntlet

<p>DJ Steward has had a strong start to his freshman campaign, averaging 12.6 points and shooting 41.7% from deep.</p>

DJ Steward has had a strong start to his freshman campaign, averaging 12.6 points and shooting 41.7% from deep.

Nearly a year ago, in Duke’s last matchup against Pittsburgh, Coach K scolded the Cameron Crazies for heckling Panthers head coach Jeff Capel. 

There will be no Crazies, and potentially no Capel, when the Blue Devils take on Pittsburgh Tuesday at 8 p.m. in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Nevertheless, some things haven’t changed since last year. 

Duke still enters the game as a major favorite, coming off an impressive ACC-opening victory at Notre Dame Dec. 16. The Blue Devils will hope to use that win in South Bend, Ind., to keep the momentum going even after their two-week break.

“Hitting shots in this game gave us a lot of confidence,” freshman guard DJ Steward said following the win against the Fighting Irish. “It’s going to give us a lot of confidence going forward.”

Pittsburgh opened conference play with a 15-point victory against Miami, leading many to speculate whether the Panthers will finally play their way out of their traditional spot near the basement of the ACC. Unfortunately, soon after this major win, they were plagued by injuries. 

Sophomore forward Justin Champagnie went down with a knee injury, expected to sideline him for six to eight weeks. Champagnie had opened the season on a tear, averaging 17.8 points and 12.3 rebounds per game and establishing himself as one of the top forwards in the ACC. Furthermore, fellow starter Au’Diese Toney is dealing with a day-to-day ankle injury. Toney’s 16.2 points per game place second on the team behind Champagnie.

Both star scorers were sorely missed in Pittsburgh’s loss to Louisville Saturday, a game in which the Panthers scored just 54 points. Toney will likely return to play soon, potentially even by Tuesday’s game. Still, with Champagnie out and Toney not at full strength, the Panthers will have to rely on guards Xavier Johnson, Femi Odukale and Ithiel Horton for increased production. 

For Duke, early losses against Michigan State and Illinois, exacerbated by an injury to star freshman Jalen Johnson, caused many fans to expect the worst in the early portion of ACC play. Instead, the Blue Devils’ success against Notre Dame showed signs that Duke can come together as a dominant team. 

However, the Blue Devils will need to use these early games to develop as a group, bringing together the talented individuals to form a cohesive unit.

“We’re not any kind of juggernaut,” Krzyzewski said following the Notre Dame game. “We can be a good team, but in order to be a very good team, it’s going to take some seasoning…. We just need to keep learning through the experience of playing these games.”

If experience is what Duke needs, then the early ACC schedule without Johnson—who appears likely to miss Tuesday's game after ESPN reported Dec. 16 he was going to be re-evaluated in two to three weeks—provides the exact environment for freshmen Jeremy Roach, Jaemyn Brakefield and Steward to develop their talent. The freshman trio stepped up against Notre Dame, combining for 40 points—expect them to continue this success against the Panthers.

Overall, the early portion of the season has raised numerous questions surrounding the true quality of this year’s Duke squad. Tuesday night, the Blue Devils have a perfect opportunity to start answering those questions.

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