It's been about 3 1/2 weeks since Duke, playing without Ryan Kelly for the first time this season, went into the lions den in Raleigh and, despite playing reasonably well considering the circumstances, suffered its first loss of the year, 84-76. The defeat not only knocked the Blue Devils from the ranks of the unbeaten, but bumped them off their perch atop the national rankings. NC State, at 3-0 in the league at that point, seemed poised to make a run at the regular season ACC championship, while Duke had a lot of questions to answer.
Continuing to make adjustments to the absence of Kelly, and getting uneven contributions from a number of players, Duke has nevertheless lost only once since Raleigh, that being the abomination that was Miami. The Wolfpack has lost four times since then, however. They followed the win over Duke with a one point loss at Maryland. After sneaking by Clemson by four at home they lost at Wake by a bucket, only to turn around and handle Carolina at home. That righted the ship, right? Uh, no. Two more L's followed: at Virginia by three, and then last Saturday's at home to Miami on the Reggie Johnson tip-in with less than a second to play. All the ACC losses have been close. Very close. Nevertheless, the opponents call "scoreboard" and there is no response. So while they do have four wins over the top 50 in the RPI (UMass, UConn, Duke and UNC), they're sitting at 5-4 in the league, and unranked, though they are #19 in the RPI. Lose to Duke and they're really in the middle of the pack, along with FSU, Maryland and Clemson. Not where they thought they'd be when the fans were storming the court in Raleigh on January 12.
State is also only 1-4 in true road games. Funny how the inability of teams with letters on their chest other than "D-U-K-E" to win on the road never quite seems to be mentioned in reviewing their performance, yet when Duke starts out with two road losses to its two toughest conference opponents, and plays both without a key senior starter, that is evidence that Duke has been "exposed" and was overrated all along. But I digress.
So State needs this game. They are going to need standout point guard Lorenzo Brown to play, and play well. He was hurt in the Virginia game, missing the final 30 minutes. He sat out against Miami, and has been in a walking boot. We know how comforting having key players in walking boots can be, now don't we fans? Brown is the leading assist man in the ACC, at almost 7 per game, and his assist % is a very strong 35.5%. State is talking like Brown will be a "game-time decision" but I doubt that. I'm sure they have a pretty good idea right now whether he's in or he's out, but they're just not saying. Nor should they.
Freshman Tyler Lewis played well in Brown's stead against the Hurricanes. In 36 minutes, the 5'11" redhead got 16 points on 4 for 8 shooting, got to the line for nine FT's (knocking down eight of em), dished out five assists and only turned the ball over once. Have to say, pretty good. Now, it was at home. Can he do the same in the pressure cooker that will be Cameron Indoor Stadium? If I am Mark Gottfried, I don't want to have to find out.
Versatile forward C.J. Leslie continues to lead State in scoring, at 15.7 ppg, and he's doing it by shooting 55% from the field. Say what you want about his attitude, demeanor, maturity, consistency, lots of things like that. Kid is a baller, and one that always seems to play well against Duke. The absence of Ryan Kelly really hurts against a player like Leslie. Kelly would cause a lot more of Leslie's shots inside to be difficult ones, as Kelly is of course 6'11". Forcing Leslie further outside would be to Duke's advantage, but Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston (if he's even available -- see below) are much less able to do that than would Kelly.
State then has its next five players all averaging between 9.8 and 12.8 ppg. That is including Brown, of course, who is at 12.7. The guy who has been a big problem for Duke has been post man Richard Howell, a burly 6'8" 257 pounder with good footwork and a solid body, and a guy who just knows how to play in there. He's scoring 12.8 ppg on 58% shooting from the field. Howell isn't fazed by long-bodied, long-armed defenders like Mason Plumlee. In the first game Howell was a load inside, getting 16 points and more importantly 18 big rebounds, including 6 off the offensive glass. He's leading the league with four offensive boards per game. It's going to be important for Plumlee to move him off of his favorite spots and challenge shots. For real challenges, not the half-hearted ones that betray a fear of getting in foul trouble. Mason is also going to have to put a body on Howell to try to control him on the glass. Howell is the Pack's best board man, by far, at just shy of 11 per outing, just ahead of Mason for the ACC lead. His defensive rebounding percentage is 22.9% and his offensive is 15.9%. Those are big numbers, folks. Dude is a beast in there.
Freshman forward T.J. Warren scores 12 ppg in 25 minutes off the bench. He shoots 63% from the field. Have you noticed a trend in terms of the Pack's shooting? Yeah, they've got a lot of guys shooting very high percentages. Which is why it's not surprising that they're leading the ACC in shooting as a team at over 50%, with a whopping full 3% lead over second place Maryland, and they stand fourth in the entire nation in that category. They are ninth in the nation in three point shooting percentage as well.
Warren is a physical player, but he has not rebounded very well for the Pack this year, surprisingly, at either the offensive or defensive end.
And we haven't even mentioned three point bomber Scott Wood, who simply cannot be left alone. He's only shooting 43% overall, but it only takes a couple of three-balls from him to completely change a game. As tempting as it is to help off on Howell or Leslie if you're guarding Wood (Seth, Rasheed, anyone else who's listening) you just can't do it. Duke learned that the hard way a few weeks ago, allowing Wood to spot up and bang home several transition 3's en route to scoring 14 big points. Wood is also the Pack's most efficient offensive player, with an ORating of 126.4, though Warren is right there with him. And he is nails from the line, hitting at a 91% clip.
Freshman guard Rodney Purvis, still pretty raw but very athletic and skilled, comes in at just shy of 10 ppg. He, along with Wood, are the primary three point shooters employed by the Pack.
Led by the guys I've talked about, State has really been an excellent offensive team overall. In addition to the deadeye shooting as measured by traditional shooting percentage, they also lead the ACC in eFG% and true shooting percentage, and are just a hair behind Duke in three-point shooting. With all those great shooting numbers, it's not surprising that they lead the ACC in scoring, but what is impressive as well is that their overall offensive efficiency is the best in the ACC too, and tenth best in the nation.
But that's it in terms of depth for State. Gottfried has gone with just a seven man rotation, and if Brown can't go, they're down to six guys used to playing any kind of meaningful minutes. And three of the six would be freshmen making their first trip into Cameron.
State used a balanced attack to defeat Duke in Raleigh last month. Wood hurt them early from long range, Howell hurt them all day inside, including a number of putbacks in the second half, and Lorenzo Brown, despite not shooting well, was solid at the point, with 12 points and 13 assists. But the star of stars was C.J. Leslie, who went inside and out, and around the Blue Devils for 25 points. Josh Hairston, starting in place of Kelly and playing 25 minutes, was simply not athletic enough to handle Leslie, while Amile Jefferson fouled out in ten minutes trying to keep up with the pace of the game and with Leslie's array of offensive moves. Rasheed Sulaimon had one of his worst games of the season in Raleigh, looking like a real freshman in going 0 for 10 from the field and scoring only four points. Seth Curry led Duke with 22, but slipped on a wet spot in the lane with about three minutes to go and sprained his ankle, just as Duke seemed to have a glimmer of hope and a little momentum building towards a late comeback. It was not to be.
I said earlier that State needs this game. But obviously Duke needs it too if they want to maintain their pursuit of Miami for the regular season league crown. Lose to State and you're three games behind in the loss column, with only one game remaining with the Canes, and with Miami having a relatively easy remaining schedule otherwise. So what will the Devils have to do? Well, if Lorenzo Brown doesn't play, Duke has got to attack Tyler Lewis off the dribble, and push the pace of the game. He'll be the only point guard the Pack has, and if he gets worn out or gets in foul difficulty, they're in trouble. Mason Plumlee, though he did some damage in the first game against Howell, has got to control him on the boards. Can't let him get 18 again. It's going to take a more physical effort from Mason defensively to do that, and it would behoove the Devils to pound the ball to Mason on offense, making Howell work on D and perhaps drawing some fouls on him. Again, this is a thin team. Amile Jefferson has made real strides since the game in Raleigh. I'm not saying he's ready to shut down Leslie, but he should make a better showing against him than he did on January 12. But who knows which C.J. Leslie will even show up? The mercurial star can burn Duke for 25 like he did last month, or he can pick up an early two fouls, or not get the ball enough and sulk as the team trails, and just never get into it and end up with 10 points and 5 rebounds and be no factor at all.
It's an interesting matchup, reallly. Both teams have an excellent post player, albeit ones with very different body types and styles. If Brown plays, both teams have pass-first point guards who can score when necessary, with very good assist-to-turnover ratios. Both teams shoot it very well, both from two and three point range, and both defend the three very well. But Duke is much more comfortable in its post-Kelly skin than it was in Raleigh, when nobody knew what to expect or what to do. Amile Jefferson is just a better player than he was a few weeks ago, and has passed Josh Hairston in the rotation -- though with Hairston questionable for the game with an infected cut on his arm, Alex Murphy may see more minutes on Thursday night as Amile's backup. You've got to think that Sulaimon isn't going to go o-fer again. Curry has had five days to rest his leg. Having lost four ACC games already, State is a less confident team than it was last month (though perhaps a more desperate one), and they may be missing a key piece as well in Lorenzo Brown. And Duke will be at home.
Even without Kelly, if the Blue Devils can't find a way to win a game like this, at home, then they don't deserve to be regular season champions. And they wouldn't be. I wouldn't expect Duke to roar out of the gate like they did against Florida State and essentially knock the opponent out in the first eight minutes or so, but I do expect them to come out intense and focused at home, and continue their strong play of late, and get even with the Wolfpack.