Duke Basketball has already faced four opponents ranked in the top 20 to this point in the season, but make no mistake… the real challenge starts with the beginning of ACC play on Saturday against Clemson.
The Blue Devils returned to the no. 1 spot in the AP Top 25, and will ring in the new year against a Clemson team that was in the Top 25 preseason rankings before a stretch of three losses in four games at the end of November and beginning of December.
With the amount of national hype surrounding Mike Krzyzewski‘s team as well as the overwhelming expectation of winning the conference this season, Saturday’s contest against the Tigers serves as a reminder that ACC play is a different animal.
The 2017-18 Blue Devils had won 11 straight contests to begin their season, and were similarly being lauded as an electrifying team with the likes of Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. And then, they were stunned by Boston College in their first ACC conference matchup.
Despite the obvious success accrued by the program this decade–including national championship wins in 2010 and 2015–Duke has not won the ACC regular season title since the 2009-10 season. And with the depth of the conference this season, that challenge looms even larger.
The ACC boasts four teams in the top 10 (Duke, Virginia, Florida State and Virginia Tech), by far the most of any individual conference, while also having six total teams ranked in the top 20 in the country. Needless to say, the ACC is absolutely stacked.
Saturday afternoon’s contest against the Tigers serves as a buffer. The Blue Devils can send a strong message to the rest of the conference with a resounding win on their home floor. Or, they could suffer from yet another letdown that would lend questions as to the level of maturity and growth of Krzyzewski’s squad moving forward.
As expected, Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett will be the key cogs to the machine. But Duke must get contributions from the entire rotation. From the continued defensive excellence of Tre Jones, to Jack White spacing the floor and knocking down threes and Javin DeLaurier providing leadership and athleticism on both ends of the floor, everyone must fill their role.
There is no doubt that this Duke team has all the ability necessary to end this title drought. But as ACC play begins, the Blue Devils must be at their most focused and resilient.