The major question the ACC keeps coming up: Will anyone challenge Duke this season? At least on Saturday, the discussion is back to where we started.
NC State was the league’s preseason favorite (Athlon picked the Wolfpack second in the ACC), but two losses by Nov. 27 caused the conversation to move to North Carolina, Maryland, Florida State and even Miami without any of them looking the part.
So all eyes move back to NC State, which has won nine games since its loss at undefeated Michigan 79-72 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Even that loss was an encouraging sign for a team that looked out for sorts in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where NC State lost by 20 to Oklahoma State.
Since then, the Wolfpack have solidified their lineup, balancing the veterans and freshmen, and lead the nation in shooting percentage (53 percent from the floor).
Behind national player of the year contender Mason Plumlee, Duke, though, keeps rolling. The Blue Devils are 15-0 and ranked No. 1 in the polls.
Before it claims ACC supremacy, Duke has its own set of challenges, including the absence of forward Ryan Kelly and its first true road game. Duke has defeated Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville, Temple and Davidson at neutral sites and Ohio State in Cameron Indoor Stadium, but the resume lacks a win in an opponent’s gym.
That can change Saturday in Raleigh.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Duke probable starters
NC State probable starters
Game-defining matchup: Mason Plumlee vs. Richard Howell
This is a matchup of Duke’s best player and player of the year candidate against NC State’s top rebounder and tone-setter. The matchup down low could go a long way to determining the outcome. Howell’s effort is unquestioned, but he needs to stay on the floor to keep Plumlee in check. He needs to avoid the foul trouble that shows up from time to time.
Player we’re watching: Quinn Cook
Cook’s development has been one the keys to Duke’s success this season, but he’s had quite the swing in the last week. Against Wake Forest, he missed all of 11 of his shots from the floor while added 14 assists to one turnover. Against Clemson on Tuesday, Duke gave him the green light to shoot despite his futility from the field against Wake. He responded with a career-high 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting.
Stat that matters: Scott Wood’s 3-point shooting
NC State is 14-0 in the last two seasons when guard Scott Wood converts four 3-point shots. That’s going to be tough to do against Duke. The Blue Devils have allowed only three players all season -- Florida Gulf Coast’s Bernard Thompson, Elon’s Sebastian Koch and Santa Clara’s Kevin Foster -- to convert four or more shots beyond the arc. Duke has limited four teams to fewer than four 3-pointers in a game (Louisville, Delaware, Cornell and Clemson).
How Duke can win: Overcome Ryan Kelly’s absence
In three games Ryan Kelly missed at the end of last season, Duke squeaked by Virginia Tech and then lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament and 15th-seeded Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Devils will have to overcome his absence again as Kelly is out with a right foot injury. Duke will miss his scoring (13.4 points per game), his versatility, his defense and some of the little things he did, such as inbounding against the press. Duke will turn to Josh Hairston (11.3 minutes per game), Amile Jefferson (8.8) and Alex Murphy (5.6) to fill Kelly’s shoes.
How NC State can win: Manage a complete effort
Even with Kelly hurt, NC State can’t play as if Duke is considerably shorthanded (though the Blue Devils may be). The Wolfpack can ill-afford foul trouble from Howell, a scoreless night from T.J. Warren (as he had against Georgia Tech on Wednesday) or some of the poor chemistry and rhythm that plagued NC State early this season.
NC State 68, Duke 65
WEEKEND ON TAP
All times Eastern.
Minnesota at Indiana
(Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network)
Minnesota has won 11 in a row, including a nice 84-67 win at Illinois on Wednesday. This is an intriguing stretch for the Gophers, who visit Bloomington on Saturday and face Michigan on Jan. 17. Trevor Mbakwe is heating up at the right time before facing the Hoosiers’ Cody Zeller.
Marquette at Pittsburgh
(Saturday, noon, ESPNU)
Pittsburgh recovered from its 0-2 Big East start with a 73-45 drubbing of Georgetown on the road. The Panthers forced more Georgetown turnovers (16) than it allowed field goals (13). Marquette hits the road for its first league away game after two close calls in Milwaukee: Marquette defeated UConn in overtime and the Hoyas by one point in Milwaukee.
Villanova at Syracuse
(Saturday, noon, Big East syndication)
Villanova started 4-4, including losses to Alabama, Columbia and La Salle, but the Wildcats have reeled off seven consecutive wins. Upsetting Syracuse at the Carrier Dome may be too much to ask of Jay Wright’s team, but it’s a storyline worth watching.
Connecticut at Notre Dame (Saturday, 2 p.m., Big East syndication)
The Huskies are showing fight under new coach Kevin Ollie, but they lack the firepower on the front line to challenge Notre Dame, especially in South Bend. Jack Cooley is averaging 15.2 points and 11.2 rebounds. The Irish have only one loss, in overtime to Saint Joseph’s.
UCLA at Colorado (Saturday, 2 p.m., Pac-12 Network)
This is far from a storied Pac-12 rivalry, but the Bruins’ trip to Boulder could be one of the better games in the league this season. Freshman Shabazz Muhammad has topped 20 points in five of his last seven games as the Bruins have recovered from a slow start. It’s gut check time for Colorado, which allowed a collapse against Arizona turn into a second loss to Arizona State.
North Carolina at Florida State (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN)
Here’s something you don’t see often from a Leonard Hamilton team: Florida State has been better — at least statistically — offensively than defensively this season. The Seminoles are heating up as conference play begins, defeating Maryland 65-62 on the road behind Okaro White’s 15 consecutive points. North Carolina, meanwhile, is in disarray. Roy Williams doesn't have the high-squad he usually has as the Tar Heels have lost their first two ACC games, scoring 52 on Virginia and
Illinois at Wisconsin (Saturday, 2:15 p.m., Big Ten Network)
This will be a difficult road test for John Groce’s club. The Fighting Illini depend heavily on the 3-point shot, but that went cold against Minnesota on Wednesday (3 of 24). Wisconsin gives up fewer 3s than any team in the Big Ten.
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN2)
This is the type of game Oklahoma State will need to win finish near the top of the Big 12. The Cowboys lost back-to-back games to Gonzaga and Kansas State before rebounding Wednesday against TCU. Oklahoma looks like a bubble team, so this kind of game can go a long way for Lon Kruger’s Sooners. OU is improved, but the Cowboys feature the more talented roster.
BYU at Santa Clara (Saturday, 4:30 p.m., ROOT Sports)
Santa Clara is one of the most improved teams in the nation. The Broncos, ravaged by injuries, won only eight games last season. They should finish near the top of the West Coast Conference this season. BYU guard Tyler Haws is averaging 27 points over his last four games, inclduing a 42-point outburst against Virginia Tech.
Saint Louis at Temple (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPNU)
After starting 3-3, Saint Louis has won eight in a row, including a 60-46 victory over New Mexico. The return of Kwamain Mitchell could make the Billikens a contender in the Atlantic 10. Temple handed Syracuse its only loss last season and gave Kansas fits by slowing the tempo, but the Owls have lost to Canisius from the MAAC and an 8-6 Xavier team.
Missouri at Ole Miss (Saturday, 8 p.m., SEC syndication)
Mizzou’s first-ever SEC road game is at the cozy Tad Pad in Oxford. Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson, the league’s leading scorer (18.2 ppg), will be the focus of the Tigers’ defense, but Murphy Holloway is also a talented scorer for the Rebs. Ole Miss was last seen scoring 92 points on defensive-minded Tennessee in Knoxville.
Colorado State at San Diego State (Saturday, 8 p.m., NBC Sports Network)
This is a sneaky-good game in the very tough Mountain West. Colorado State, under first-year coach Larry Eustachy, has the talent to return to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. San Diego State is clearly a league contender. As he showed earlier this week, Aztecs guard Jamaal Franklin can dunk a little.
Michigan at Ohio State (Sunday, 1:30 p.m., CBS)
Michigan has been one of the most impressive teams in the nation to date, but the Wolverines have yet to be tested in a true road game. Ohio State will provide that test, but the Buckeyes might not have enough scoring to keep up with John Beilein’s balanced attack.
Maryland at Miami (Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPNU)
Two teams that have endured setbacks of late: Miami with a thumb injury to Reggie Johnson and Maryland with its loss to Florida State on Wednesday. The Hurricanes have proven they can win even without their big man, but Terrapins 7-foot-1 center Alex Len will be a new challenge.
Arizona State at Oregon (Sunday, 9 p.m., Pac-12 Network)
Both teams are led in scoring by freshmen — Oregon’s Damyean Dotson and Arizona State’s Jahii Carson. Carson’s numbers are better, but Dotson has the supporting cast that handed Arizona its first loss of the season Thursday.
Athlon managing editor Mitch Light contributed to this report.