In a year that has already been filled with anomalies, add one more to the list—Duke will enter a game unranked.
The Blue Devils travel north to take on Pittsburgh Tuesday at 9 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center. After Duke fell out of the AP Poll Monday for the first time since 2016, a win in Pittsburgh is essential if head coach Mike Krzyzewski and company want to get the season back on track.
Fortunately for Duke (5-3, 3-1 in the ACC), the weeklong break since the team’s loss at Virginia Tech last Tuesday gave freshman forward Jalen Johnson time to reacclimate himself to basketball condition, with Krzyzewski saying Johnson has had “good practices” this entire week.
Also returning from the injury list is graduate transfer Patrick Tapé. Although his services as a traditional big man likely won’t be heavily utilized against the Panthers, Krzyzewski finally has a full deck of cards to play with.
“My feeling is every coach has to run his own course with his own program. You try to look at what’s happening around the country—just pay attention to what you’re doing,” Krzyzewski said. “Try to do the very best that you can in what you’re doing and hopefully that translates to wins, really good play and all that, and games.”
The lack of rhythm is a possible reason for Duke’s early struggles, as five of its scheduled games have already either been canceled or postponed. Pittsburgh (7-2, 3-1) has dealt with some obstacles as well, the biggest being star forward Justin Champagnie missing three weeks due to an LCL injury.
Champagnie knocked the rust off quick in his first game back against Syracuse this past Saturday, posting 24 points and 16 rebounds. There’s no question that the Brooklyn native is a phenomenal athlete, but what makes him so potent is his efficiency. The sophomore is shooting 49.1% from the field this season and hit eight of his 16 shot attempts against the Orange.
“Every year there are top players in the league and they’re always difficult to defend,” Krzyzewski said. “[Champagnie is] one of the top players in the league and very unique in that he can score efficiently and score when there’s no play for him. Those are really good guys.”
Champagnie’s presence on the boards is also a difference maker for Pittsburgh, and Krzyzewski is well aware of it.
“He’s as good a rebounder as there is maybe in the whole country,” Krzyzewski added. “Because his shots come after shots a lot of times, he’s even easier to play with. So when you look...probably a third to a half of [Champagnie's shot attempts], they’re second shots.”
Champagnie isn’t the only Panther who dominates the glass, however. Pittsburgh ranks second in the ACC with 43.2 rebounds per game, and it does all that without a true center, which gives the team’s guards the freedom to drive into the paint whenever they want.
It will be interesting to see what kind of lineup Krzyzewski puts forward to combat the Panthers’ dominant rebounding. He could give Tapé and 7-footer Mark Williams more minutes, but that leaves the Blue Devils vulnerable to the quick slashing abilities of the Pittsburgh guards.
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Sticking with Jordan Goldwire, Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward on the floor will definitely allow Duke to play fast, and Goldwire would surely force one Panther guard into a rough night, but neither of those three are known for being rebounding machines.
Furthermore, the larger concern for the Blue Devils is that the team’s stars are emerging and yet they still cannot find a way to beat ranked opponents. Matthew Hurt has been exceptional all year, while Steward and Roach have both shown they are bona fide scorers. Players like Jaemyn Brakefield and Goldwire are providing solid minutes almost every game as well, but for whatever reason everything is still not fully together.
Johnson’s return and versatility will allow Krzyzewski to play around a bit more with his lineups, but even if Duke beats Pittsburgh, questions over whether the team can beat ranked opponents will loom overhead.
Nevertheless, the focus for Krzyzewski and his squad remains on one game at a time, and Tuesday night’s battle with the Panthers is a game the Blue Devils need to put in the win column.
Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.