It’s gut check time for Illinois and Duke.
Tuesday’s 9:30 p.m. showdown in Cameron Indoor Stadium could be a moment each of these teams look back on as the game that defined their seasons. The ACC/Big Ten challenge is always a high stakes game, but this year’s matchup holds even more implications.
The 10th-ranked Blue Devils and sixth-ranked Fighting Illini have had similar starts—both winning their games against unranked opponents but losing to top-10 teams in their first real tests of the season—so Tuesday’s bout is an opportunity for each team to impress the college basketball world with a quality win.
“We are not a veteran team. We have seven out of 11 guys that are new.... So you have got to get to know one another, and it’s not going to be a well-oiled machine, but it’s got to be a hard-working machine and a machine that keeps cutting down on the turnovers,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski’s squad may still be working out the kinks, but beating Illinois is going to require as close to a mistake-free game as possible.
From an offensive standpoint, all eyes will be on Blue Devil forward Matthew Hurt and Fighting Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu to ignite the scoring for their respective teams.
Hurt is coming off of his best game of the season and possibly his career, as his 24 points on 75 percent efficiency from the field against Bellarmine point toward all the preseason hype surrounding the Minnesota native being true. He is shooting the ball particularly well from beyond the arc, and Illinois has not exactly locked down its opponents’ 3-point shooting.
As for Dosunmu, Duke needs to be ready for an offensive juggernaut. The junior is filling up the stat sheet as good as any guard in the country and his 23.8 points per game on a 50 percent conversion rate is something the Blue Devils are going to have to key in on. Baylor had success against Illinois largely because they held Dosunmu to under his season average in points, assists and rebounds as well as forcing him to shoot below 35 percent from the field.
The productivity of the second offensive option will be pivotal for both teams tomorrow, but unfortunately for Duke, it is still unclear who that second option is.
For Illinois, 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn is the most dangerous player in its front court. The Jamaica native has tallied a double-double in all but one of his games this season, and his big frame usually makes him a matchup issue. However, Duke has a 7-footer of its own in Mark Williams so we may see more of a traditional lineup from the Blue Devils.
As for Duke’s second scorer, a number of players have made compelling cases, most recently Jaemyn Brakefield.
The freshman forward went a perfect 4-for-4 from 3-point range against Bellarmine, and his smooth left-handed shooting stroke has earned him increasing minutes each game.
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“I just handle what I can handle. I just work on winning. I’m a winner, so anytime I get the chance to get in the game I just put my head down and work,” Brakefield said.
Brakefield is not going to skate his way into the number-two option without competition, as fellow freshmen Jalen Johnson and DJ Steward have also had impressive performances and sophomore Wendell Moore Jr. is still a legitimate contender to fill the role.
“We’re just a young team. We just got to keep playing hard,” Krzyzewski said.
Among the leaders of this young team is senior Jordan Goldwire, who leads the squad in assists and steals. While he is not on the same level offensively as Tre Jones from a season ago, Goldwire’s veteran presence and suffocating defense will be extremely valuable against Illinois.
Goldwire will likely be guarding Dosunmu for most of the game and his ability to make the Illinois guard uncomfortable could be an indicator of who comes out on top. When Goldwire's not on the floor, freshman guard Jeremy Roach and Steward will have their biggest defensive test yet, and neither have Goldwire’s four years of college basketball strength training under their belt to make up for the height advantage Dosunmu presents to most opposing guards.
“[Roach and Goldwire are] not just point guards, they’re guards. They can play together. [Goldwire] right now gives us that leadership and Jeremy can start with him,” Krzyzewski said.
Whatever lineup Krzyzewski rolls out tomorrow, every Blue Devil must be prepared for a 40-minute heavyweight battle as they search for their first statement win of the season.
Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.