A year ago, Duke’s first trip in school history to the Carrier Dome to face Syracuse created an instant classic.
The same may be true of the Blue Devils’ first trip to Louisville in more than 30 years.
On Jan. 2, 1982, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was 93-77 in his career. He lost No. 78 with a 99-61 defeat to a Denny Crum-led Cardinals team that would finish the season in the Final Four.
Krzyzewski returns to a new arena in Louisville and with 997 career wins. If not for the Blue Devils’ two-game losing streak, this could have been the game when Krzyzewski could hit 1,000 wins.
Although that milestone will have to wait, this is a can’t-miss game.
There is no shortage of star power in this contest, starting with the coaches and the All-Americans on both sides in Jahlil Okafor and Montrezl Harrell. But what this meeting comes down to is Duke’s ability to handle Louisville’s constant pressure defense and balanced scoring attack, all while trying to improve on their own defensive effort. That is quite the handful for Coach K’s young squad that is in the midst of its biggest speed bump of the season.
Duke at Louisville
Site: KFC YUM! Center, Louisville, Ky.
Time: Noon Eastern
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What’s on the line for Duke?
After losing back-to-back games to NC State in Raleigh and Miami at Cameron Indoor, the Blue Devils are searching for a defensive identity. In those two losses, Duke surrendered 87 and 90 points, mixed with lackluster offensive performances from the backcourt. The Blue Devils are looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2007 when they dropped four in a row en route to a first round loss to VCU in the NCAA Tournament.
Duke needs a momentum swing in a major way. After Louisville, the Blue Devils face Pittsburgh in Durham (Jan. 19) before heading to New York City to play at St. John’s (Jan. 25), at No.12 Notre Dame (Jan. 28) and at No. 2 Virginia (Jan. 31).
What’s on the line for Louisville?
Louisville’s best win so far is against a streaky Indiana team on a neutral floor that couldn’t match up with the the Cards’ front line. After a crushing loss to North Carolina and Marcus Paige’s beautiful utilization of the backboard, Louisville still needs a signature win.
The Cardinals’ only other loss came on their home floor to Kentucky. Count on Pitino’s team to do what his teams do best — play bully defense, rebound and score in transition.
The Cards aren’t the most suave offensive team, ranking 179th in team field goal percentage (43.5percent), 285th in three-point percentage (30.4%) and 192nd in assists (12.5 per game). What Louisville lacks in terms of scoring efficiency, the Cardinals make up for in balance in their starting five. Four of the five Cardinals starters average double figures in points per game, led by sophomore guard Terry Rozier (17.4 pointers per game) and All-America forward Montrezl Harrell (15.4 points per game).
With the tough loss to UNC still fresh in the Cards’ minds, look for them to protect home court valiantly against a struggling Duke team.
You’ll tune into watch: Montrezl Harrell vs. Jahlil Okafor
Just like their two respective teams as a whole, All-Americas Montrezl Harrell and Jahlil Okafor’s games are stark opposites. Harrell is Louisville’s ignition. At a long 6-foot-8, Harrell isn’t afraid to get in an opponent’s face, but he is much more than flash and talk. Harrell runs the floor like a wing and has even been known to step behind the arc to let one fly from deep.
Generally, Harrell is the most athletic player on the floor, using his athleticism to grab almost nine rebounds a game, and a major reason why the Cardinals are one the best rebounding and shot-blocking teams in the nation.
Even though Okafor is a freshman, his interior footwork and touch around the rim is NBA ready. Shooting well over 60 percent from the field (66.8 percent) as a 19 year old is astounding, but be assured that Harrell will make the youngster work for his shots in the paint, likely bodying the 6-11 Okafor off of the block and into uncomfortable jump shots.
This All-American matchup is worth the price of admission alone.
Pivotal Player: Duke’s Tyus Jones
Recently the freshman point guard has hardly been visible, having failed to score at least 10 points in any the past five games. Luckily for Duke, Jones has saved his best performances for the Blue Devils’ biggest games against Michigan State (17 points, four assists), at Wisconsin (22 points, six rebounds, four assists) and against UConn on a neutral floor (21 points, six rebounds, three assists).
Jones will definitely need to score points for Duke to win, but he could be just as impactful on the glass and by not turning the ball over, giving Louisville easy fast-break chances.
Biggest Question: What gives first…Duke’s offense or Louisville’s defense?
Duke comes into this game strugglingon both sides of the court. KenPom.com has Duke as the seventh-best adjusted offense in the nation. In conference play, Amile Jefferson and Okafor are shooting 63 percent while the rest of the team is shooting just 37 percent from the floor. This is where Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook and Justise Winslow are going to be crucial.
While Okafor and Harrell might grab the headlines in the paint, this game will be decided on the perimeter. How will Duke’s backcourt, which can catch fire at any time, get open looks against Louisville’s perimeter protectors of Wayne Blackshear, Terry Rozier and Chris Jones? Or will the Cards want to funnel Duke’s guards into the paint where they can be neutralized by Harrell and the 6-foot-10 Mangok Mathiang.
Duke ranks sixth nationally in points per game offensively (83.2) while Louisville ranks 16th in points allowed (56.9), 12th in blocks (6.1) and 10th in steals (10.2). It will be interesting to see how Duke attacks inside the arc, where they score just 52 percent of their total points.
Duke’s recent offensive instability jumbling with their defensive failures going against Louisville’s shallow offense and killer defense should make for great college basketball theatre come Saturday afternoon on the banks of the Ohio River.
David Fox: Duke 68-65
Mitch Light: Louisville 68-62
Jake Rose: Duke 70-60
-By Jake Rose