Duke started the season beating a ranked foe then returned home and took care of business against lesser opponents.
Now it’s time to see if the Blue Devils have progressed enough to challenge the top team in the land.
Duke and Gonzaga meet Friday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in the second top-five matchup of the week in that building.
No. 1-ranked Gonzaga manhandled No. 2 UCLA, 83-63, on Tuesday night, further cementing the Bulldogs (6-0) as the team to beat in college basketball this season.
“Obviously, they’re really good,” Duke associate head coach Jon Scheyer said Wednesday. “That was an impressive performance.”
Since beating No. 10 Kentucky, 79-71, on Nov. 9 at the Champions Classic in New York, the Blue Devils rattled off five consecutive home wins over unranked teams from lower-profile conferences.
Those wins, all by double-digit margins over Army West Point, Campbell, Gardner-Webb, Lafayette and The Citadel, presented the Blue Devils with different challenges. Sometimes it was facing a zone defense. Other times it was using a smaller lineup to contest a team that put five ballhandlers on the court.
The varied and shared experiences helped Duke quickly bond into a team even though freshman Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels have started every game.
“You look really in every one of the games so far, there’s been at least somebody on our team of the 10 scholarship players that makes big plays,” said Scheyer, who will take over as Duke’s head coach when Mike Krzyzewski retires following this season. “We’ve had a team. You can look at anybody throughout every game, so I think that’s been important.”
Importantly, the Blue Devils have established themselves as a top-notch defensive unit. Or maybe that should be re-established? Duke has long been known for tenacious man-to-man defense, but that wasn’t the case last season when the Blue Devils went 13-11 to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.
Duke allowed 0.97 of a point per possession, which ranked No. 79 nationally, according to KenPom.com. The season prior, while going 25-6, Duke allowed 0.91 (12th nationally).
This season, the Blue Devils are No. 20 nationally at .898 per possession.
That said, the 81 points The Citadel scored in Monday’s 107-81 loss to Duke were the most allowed by the Blue Devils this season. The Bulldogs tied a Cameron Indoor Stadium record Duke had previously set with 18 made 3-pointers, the most ever made by a visiting team.
After that performance, Krzyzewski said Duke’s defense “wasn’t horrible” despite The Citadel’s shooting prowess. He credited the Bulldogs with hitting some tough shots.
For the season as a whole, Krzyzewski said “I do think we’re playing good defense.”
That will be tested by Gonzaga, which has one of the nation’s top players in 6-10 junior forward Drew Timme. The Bulldogs also start 7-foot freshman Chet Holmgren and have 6-5 senior guard Andrew Nembhard to lead their perimeter game.
“Everyone talks about Timme and Holmgren, but Nembhard killed UCLA,” Krzyzewski said Wednesday on his SiriusXM radio show “Basketball and Beyond with Coach K.” “Twenty-four points, six assists, [five] rebounds or so. But he added a verve, like, he pushed that ball down the court. He was strong physically, mentally, and he set the tone of the game, there’s no question. So that’ll be a key matchup.”
The whole group, Scheyer said, will give the Blue Devils a tough matchup. But they are ready.
“They have a complete team,” Scheyer said. “Not many teams can do this in college, but they put five guys on the floor that can all pass, handle and shoot. That makes it always difficult for you as a defense, but we’re excited about the opportunity. This is probably the reason you come to Duke, to be in games like this, so I can tell you the excitement is there from our end. The belief for us, we’re going into this game to get a win.”
Friday’s game is a neutral-site event, just as Duke’s win over Kentucky was earlier this month. That night in Manhattan, Madison Square Garden was full of screaming fans that reminded many what was missed during the pandemic lockdowns last season.
The Duke-Gonzaga game figures to have just as electric an atmosphere.
“The venue in Vegas, that’s going to be a sold-out venue,” said Duke junior forward Wendell Moore, one of the team’s captains. “It’s probably been sold out for the past three months. That’s a game that we all want to play in, that’s a game that we wait for, and that’s a game that we come here for. We’re going to be ready for it.”