No. 9 Duke is learning to fight, and its first of a three-game road stretch begins this Saturday at Louisville.
The Blue Devils started the season red hot and climbed to the No. 1 overall AP poll ranking with big victories over some of the nation’s greatest talent in Kentucky and Gonzaga. However, arguably the most difficult challenge of all has been the gauntlet of ACC conference play. Even if the rest of the ACC isn’t rated as highly as it is traditionally, these teams still bring players with years of experience, are well-coached, and bring their very best when the Blue Devils come to town. Duke seemed knocked back initially with losses to Miami and Florida State, but seems to be improving, with two straight wins, a dominant showing against Syracuse and a well-fought win against Clemson Tuesday. Here are five things to look for as Duke attempts to win its third game in a row when they travel to KFC Yum! Center Saturday for a noon tipoff.
One of Duke’s largest weaknesses has been rebounding, particularly on the defensive end. The Blue Devils (16-3, 6-2 in the ACC) simply cannot secure as many defensive rebounds as their size and talent indicate they should. Giving teams these offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities has been devastating. Duke allowed Clemson to record 14 offensive rebounds Tuesday night, while grabbing just three of its own. Eliminating some of these 14 second-chance opportunities would easily have turned this game from a one-possession finish into a much more comfortable home win for the Blue Devils.
As Duke associate head coach Chris Carrawell puts it, “We do a great job of getting the first initial stop and maybe the second stop, but if the team keeps attacking the offensive glass and getting those extra possessions, I think it wears you down on the offensive end”.
A large part of this deficiency on the defensive glass may be attributed to sophomore center Mark Williams’ constant pursuit of blocks. Williams leads the team with 3.3 blocks per game, and his protection of the rim is instrumental to Duke’s success. As successful as Williams is at intimidating shooters and rejecting their shots, if he misses the block, there is rarely another big man prepared to grab the rebound.
“He is a leading shot blocker in the conference and one of the top in the country, and with the confidence where you think you can get everything, and more times than not he can,” Carrawell said. “But some of those times where he can’t get to those shots, it leaves a small on a big. And with the athleticism that we play against in the ACC, those guys are cleaning that up”
The Blue Devils will look for Mark Williams to find a balance between going for blocks and also staying back to be prepared to grab the defensive rebound. Graduate transfer forward Theo John and freshman forward Paolo Banchero will also look to make plays on the glass.
Finding the flow
After the first three games of not starting this season (against Wake Forest, N.C. State and Florida State), sophomore point guard Jeremy Roach has found himself back into the starting rotation and has been key to Duke’s success. In his last three games, Roach has tallied 24 assists and just three turnovers. These remarkable numbers reflect the tremendous efficiency that Roach brings to the court, and his ability to facilitate the success of his teammates.
“He’s mastered it, so to speak these last three games,” Roach said. “And so if we can keep trending in that direction, that gives us another weapon.”
In addition to Roach’s incredible ability to make other players better and take care of the ball, he can score from anywhere on the court. Roach has gotten huge buckets throughout this season, through impressive drives to the basket such as a pivotal one down the stretch against Gonzaga earlier this season, and his pull-up jump shots and three ball that he hit on Tuesday night against Clemson. Roach will look to continue his dynamic performance against the Cardinals, who have struggled to slow down opposing guards, allowing both Virginia guard Kihei Clark and Notre Dame guard Prentiss Hubb to record five assists and double-digit points (15 and 12 respectively).
Duke has relied on its success from beyond the arc in its recent games, as it shot 37% and 50% in its victories against Syracuse and Clemson. The Blue Devils have a very well-rounded 3-point attack, with players like Banchero, Roach, AJ Griffin, Wendell Moore Jr., Joey Baker and Bates Jones all knocking down threes when given open looks.
“[Baker] came in and hit some big threes and the shot to put us up,” Carrawell said.”
The 3-point shot is particularly important for the Blue Devils because with such talented players inside in Williams, John and Banchero, opposing teams frequently combat this by crowding the paint. The best way for Duke to open up room inside is to threaten opponents with the outside shot. The drive and kick strategy has worked very well for the Blue Devils, and they will look to continue this against the Cardinals, a team who allowed Notre Dame in its second-to-last game to shoot 65.2% from 3-point range.
One of the game’s most significant storylines does not lie on Duke’s side of the court. Former Louisville head coach Chris Mack is no longer coaching for the Cardinals. This is Louisville's first game of the season without Mack, and associate head coach Mike Pegues will fill in for the Cardinals’ head coaching duties on Saturday. Mack had struggled this season, missing the first six games due to suspension, and Louisville (11-9, 5-5) was 6-8 in their next 14 games with him, losing five of their last six.
The impact of this news could go a variety of ways. It is possible that the Cardinals will struggle to find consistency and familiarity on the court amidst this change, and it is also very possible that the Louisville players will be motivated to play well following this fresh start. This head coaching change gives the Cardinals a chance to rewrite their season.
“No matter who the coach is, they’re going to be ready to play in Louisville, they have a great tradition, great history. So I mean, it’s going to be a battle at noon,” Carrawell said.
Baker gets buckets
Since the injury and absence of freshman guard Trevor Keels, Baker has stepped into a huge role for the Blue Devils. Baker is having an impact on and off the court. He scored 11 points and shot 3-for-4 from 3-point range in Duke’s win against Clemson, and scored 11 against Syracuse as well. Baker’s biggest bucket came with 2:18 remaining in the game to put the Blue Devils in the lead over Clemson.
“He spends a lot of time in the gym. He’s always shooting and working on his game,” Carrawell said. “Now you’re starting to see him get some minutes and really produce and we wouldn’t have won that game against Clemson without him”
Baker’s leadership as a senior has been huge for the Blue Devils, a team who gets much of its success from freshmen. He will look to continue knocking down open shots, and serve as a powerful force for the Blue Devils through his words and his play in late-game scenarios.
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