The ACC's oldest series resumes on Wednesday night at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum as Duke and Wake Forest meet for a 239th time since the two inaugural games in 1905-06, both won by Wake as they held the Devils to a combined 15 points. Total. For the whole two games.
Safe to say, things have changed just a tad since then. Duke fans, accustomed over the years to seeing their team with its foot on the throat of the opponent, are breathing a little easier than they were a few days ago. Saturday's 20-point takedown of Maryland certainly calmed the nerves following the 27 point mauling at the hands of Miami in the previous game. Rasheed Sulaimon clearly has his juju back, as he nailed three pointers from all over the court and played aggressively on D. Quinn Cook played a brilliant floor game, even a dominant one. Mason Plumlee was assertive in the post. And the force-feeding of Amile Jefferson resumed; he continued to make strides at both ends of the floor. He appears to becoming more confident each time out. (Not counting Miami. For anything.) OK, OK, so Duke isn't #1 anymore. They're all the way down to #5 in the nation. So what? This team is still 17-2 overall, 4-2 in the league, and trying not to look too forward to a (whisper now) Ryan Kelly return in a few weeks.
Wake Forest is just really struggling as a program under Jeff Bzdelik, now in his third season in Winston-Salem. They were historically bad in 2010-11, going 8-24 and 1-15 in the conference, and improved only to 13-18 overall and 4-12 in the league last year. This season they sit at 10-9 overall, and actually a surprisingly respectable 3-4 in the conference, tied for seventh place with Maryland and Clemson. But still, this seems to be nothing like the program that produced Tim Duncan, Randolph Childress, Rodney Rogers, Josh Howard, Muggsy Bogues, Chris Paul, Jeff Teague, and many other great stars, and was a postseason fixture throughout the 1990's and most of the 2000's too.
Since getting thumped by the Blue Devils back on January 5 (man, that seems like a long time ago for this team, doesn't it?) Wake came off the mat to score consecutive home wins over UVA and BC before scoring only 44 points in a decisive loss at Clemson and then losing a heartbreaker by a point in Blacksburg. Then came perhaps the high point of the season, a big upset at home over NC State, coming back from 16 down to do it. It was their first win over a ranked team in almost three years. The fans stormed the court. Could that win help them regain some momentum? No. On Saturday they allowed fellow bottom-feeder Georgia Tech to score the first 16 points of the game, trailed by 23 at the half, and the Jackets coasted to an easy 20 point win. So it goes for the Deacons.
Wake just doesn't do anything particularly well. They only score 68 ppg; they shoot only 43% as a team; they're a lousy rebounding team, and they don't pass the ball particularly well. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how'd you like the play? One big problem, of course, is that they're very, very young. Two freshman, big man Devin Thomas and guard Codi Miller-McIntyre, are averaging north of 26 minutes per game, while forwards Tyler Cavanaugh, Arnaud Moto, and Aaron Rountree, and guard Madison Jones, are all getting from 12 to 17 minutes apiece. That's a lot.
6'7" forward Travis McKie continues to lead the Demon Deacons in scoring at 15.1 ppg on 45.5% shooting. Guard C.J. Harris is right behind him at 14.8 ppg, and he's a good shooter -- 48% FG shooting and 43% on three's. But after those two, nobody else scores more than 9 ppg. McKie is also Wake's top board man, grabbing 8 per game. Devin Thomas is right there too, at 7.6. Nobody averages even three assists per game. As a team, their assists-to-turnovers ratio is less than one. For those of you scoring at home, that means they turn the ball over more frequently than they get assists on their own baskets. Not good.
In the teams' previous meeting, in Cameron, Ryan Kelly was a huge factor. He scored 13 of Duke's first 19 points, finished the half with 17, and despite fouling out with almost eight minutes to play, ended with a season-high 22 points in only 18 minutes of action. Seth Curry also had 22, and this was the Quinn Cook weird stat line game: 0 for 11 from the field, with a career-high 14 assists. All righty then. McKie led Wake with 22 while Harris had 19. Thomas and McKie held their own against Mason Plumlee, finishing with 12 and 11 boards, respectively. Turnovers killed the Deacons, as Duke forced 19 while only making 6. The only significant disappointment for Duke in that game was the reserves' inability to maintain the lead, which resulted in the starters having to go back and play some minutes in the second half that they shouldn't have had to play.
It was after the first Wake game that Coach K happened to mention in his post-game comments that "Ryan was hurt during the holidays. He tweaked his foot." Nobody gave it a second thought. We all think we're listening pretty closely to the coach's interviews. Maybe . . .we're not? Just sayin'.
Even without Kelly, and even with the game being played in Winston, this should not be close. I know, I know. I wrote that I thought we'd beat Miami too. But in that assessment I was primarily relying on the basketball knowledge of my go-to guy on the Hurricanes, Doug Fuchs. Won't make that mistake again. But Duke has way too many weapons for Wake, and way too much experience, to boot. Their bigs are going to bang Mason around, like they did last time, but in that game Mason proved to be pretty adept at passing out of the post quickly. Hence the three pointers that rained down on Wake's head. With the Deacons being so youthful, it should be a good opportunity for Amile Jefferson to continue his development, and maybe Marshall Plumlee could get some decent burn too. If Quinn Cook controls this game anything like he did the one against Maryland, then Wake will have no chance.
The Devils came out very focused against Maryland, and played very hard. I would expect the same against Wake on Wednesday night. Look, it's not like the Blue Devils aren't going to lose again this year. They are. But I just don't see us falling apart like we did against the Hurricanes when things start to go wrong. They can start to go wrong against any opponent, including even a team like Wake Forest. But I just have to believe that the Miami experience toughened this team up and helped them forge the determination to say "never again. Not in this uniform." That mental and emotional strength probably won't be tested against a lower tier team like the Deacons, but the more outings there are in which the Blue Devils are intense for 40 minutes, the more likely it is that the determination is there and ready to be summoned when needed. Only time will tell.