Following another disappointing loss, this time at the hands of Pittsburgh, the Blue Devils have an enormous mountain to climb on both the conference and national stage.
Duke will look to begin that climb at the KFC Yum! Center Saturday at 4 p.m. against Louisville.
While the Blue Devils’ season has finally started avoiding postponements and finding the semblance of a rhythm, the team’s performance on the court has slipped dramatically. However, freshman Jalen Johnson has been a bright spot for Duke, leading the team in points, assists, rebounds and blocks Tuesday night against the Panthers. His ability to produce that level of play on a consistent basis is essential if the Blue Devils hope to bounce back from their tough current stretch.
Overall, Duke (5-4, 3-2 in the ACC) has shifted from the rocky isolation-style play seen against Michigan State and Illinois toward looking more like a complete offensive unit on the floor, but there remain several places that require some ironing out.
Given the young nature of the team, trust in each other’s abilities has been an issue, and execution has been sloppy. Freshman guard DJ Steward sees these areas, on top of improving his own play, as the keys to success moving forward.
“We gotta trust [Coach K’s] game plan and we gotta trust each other as well,” Steward said.
Steward also discussed the recent doubts surrounding Duke’s season and its tumble from the AP Top 25.
“We’re gonna take that personally,” Steward added. “We gotta lock in as a team and come together as one.”
Louisville (9-3, 4-2) faces its own identity crisis as well. Though the Cardinals have something Duke lacks—a quality win against No. 19 Virginia Tech—they have struggled mightily over their previous two matchups against Miami and Florida State, especially early in the contests. Head coach Chris Mack’s squad has fallen behind by 13 and 24 points, respectively, in the first half of each of those games.
Graduate student point guard Carlik Jones has put up solid numbers on the year for Louisville, with his 17.9 points and 4.7 assists per contest securing his status as one of the top playmakers in the nation. Defending him soundly has become an emphasis for Duke’s backcourt heading into the weekend.
“Keep him out of the lane,” Steward said regarding the game plan for Jones. “We can’t have another game like Pitt where we’re jumping in the air and fouling. Just gotta be solid.”
Each team is in dire need of a strong showing Saturday to continue to build its resume. A win would be a major step in formulating either team's long-missing identity while serving as a solid recovery from a week-long blip.
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“The more hungry team is going to win,” Steward said. “This game we gotta be serious. Strictly business, no goofing off, nothing.”