Once is happenstance, twice is a coincidence and three times is a trend. If the Blue Devils are to prevent their woes against Louisville from becoming a trend, they will need to carry over the momentum from an opening round victory against Boston College.
In two meetings this season, Duke took the Cardinals down to the wire but came up just short, falling 70-65 at the KFC Yum! Center Jan. 23 and 80-73 in overtime at Cameron Indoor Stadium Feb. 27. Now, the Blue Devils have a date with Louisville Wednesday in the second round of the 2021 ACC Tournament while the daily fight for their postseason lives continues. With tip off set for 6:30 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum, let’s summarize what to watch for.
The Blue Devils have been treated to the full Carlik Jones experience in both losses to Louisville this year, as the senior guard has torched Duke to the tune of 49 points on 45.4% from the field and just three turnovers.
Jones may be only 6-foot-1, but he has the heart of a lion and can deliver at all three levels. Defending the Ohio native in ball-screens will be a challenge for Jeremy Roach and Jordan Goldwire, as switching could yield a speed advantage for Jones, while staying home without enough of a hedge could allow him to turn the corner with ease.
The razor-thin margins in both Blue Devil losses were ultimately decided by the Cardinal backcourt, particularly Jones taking care of the rock and shining in crucial moments. If today’s game comes down to the wire, expect Louisville head coach Chris Mack to put the ball in the hands of his best player.
“They were both really outstanding games, and their veteran backcourt was the difference,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “[David] Johnson’s terrific. Jones in the last four or five minutes of a game is probably the best in our conference in managing the game and making the right decisions.”
Where the Hurt at?
While Matthew Hurt has turned in arguably his two best performances of the year against the Cardinals—his 37-point, 7 rebound display singlehandedly kept Duke afloat in the overtime defeat last month—the Minnesota native has fouled out both times, hindering the Blue Devils’ ability to knock down buckets in crunch time.
Louisville constantly targeted Hurt in the pick-and-roll late in the first matchup, a wise tactic that exploited the sophomore big man’s substandard lateral quickness. Even Duke changing its ball-screen defense in the middle of ACC play could not prevent its standout forward from finding a seat on the bench for the final 17 seconds of the extra period during the second loss to the Cardinals.
Hurt will likely find a way to produce offensively, but the other end of the floor will truly be the key piece of the puzzle if he is to put a stamp on tonight’s contest in the last few minutes.
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Slow starts have been an Achilles heel for the Blue Devils since opening day, but the ACC tournament is a blank slate. Before anyone even blinked Tuesday afternoon, Duke led 10-2 in its victory against Boston College.
Controlling the game from the jump will rest on the shoulders of Roach and fellow freshman DJ Steward, especially with the stellar backcourt combination on the other side. The magnitude of Wednesday’s duel will be evident throughout, and the Blue Devils will have to pounce early on if the narrative surrounding Duke-Louisville in 2021 is to change.
“We know that we have a really heavy task ahead right now,” Steward said. “They’re a really great team, they’re hot right now…we just have to lock in and be ready defensively.”
There’s no doubt that the Blue Devils are still a river’s length away from even being able to think about challenging for the ACC crown this week. Despite that, if Duke can avoid losing its third game to the same team—something that has not happened to the program since 1995 against Tim Duncan and Wake Forest—then nearly everything that transpired in the prior two matchups between the Blue Devils and the Cardinals will be water under the bridge.
“I think the biggest thing for us is just knowing our matchups, being aggressive and being confident,” freshman center Mark Williams said. “Knowing we’ve lost to them twice, we have to remember that feeling in the locker room after that game—can’t repeat that feeling.”
Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.