Duke welcomes State back to Cameron after a one-year absence, and while Duke is favored, given the history of the rivalry, and State's improved play, you'd have to be kind of dense to take this game for granted.
State's early season struggles are well-documented. The Pack lost to New Orleans, was the first ACC team ever to lose to ECU in basketball, and was eviscerated in Chapel Hill.
They lost point guard Farnold Degan early, and have struggled to incorporate freshman Javi Gonzalez and Tennessee transfer Marques Johnson as his replacements.
And last year's stars Ben McCauley and Brandon Costner have not reacted well to the dominant role freshman J.J.Hickson took from day one.
In short, this team has had a tough time. In addition, while coach Sidney Lowe would prefer a high-octane running game, most of the players he inherited are poorly suited to it. State is in a big transition period still.
But regardless of the problems, regardless of the chemistry, State has some significant talent, starting with Hickson. The 6-9 rookie is shooting .632 from the floor. He's really, really good, and Duke doesn't have anyone like him. He's leading the Pack at 15.3 ppg.
Gavin Grant is a 6-7 utility player, basically, a guy who can do a lot of different things, although he has a history of turnover problems. But he's a tough, experienced player, as he showed with his brilliant burgling of Miami's almost-win about two weeks ago.
Courtney Fells has come on to be an effective guard for State, and along with Hickson and Grant (at 13.2 ppg) is one of State's three double-digit scorers, at 11.2 ppg.
Johnson and Gonzalez have manned the point, and while they're improving, it's been an uneven performance.
Ben McCauley has struggled with his role off the bench, but the big man from Pennsylvania has had his moments. Dennis Horner has been a useful sub; Tracy Smith, who came in with a big rep, has also gotten some minutes.
One of State's biggest problems is that they never know for sure what to expect from McCauley or Costner. They could go for 25, or either one could settle for four points.
State has played better recently, with the last three games going down to the wire, but chemistry is still a concern: against Georgia Tech, with a chance to tie the game, four players ran away from the in-bounder. When Gonzalez rushed back to get it, he ended up getting stuck with the ball at the buzzer. Instead of Grant or Fells taking the shot, or Costner, Gonzalez launched an air ball.
State's biggest worry, though, will be turnovers. Duke is forcing them by the bushel; State already averages about 15 per game. Duke has used turnovers to force teams into a running game they don't want, and it also helps them negate not having a post player.
Duke will have trouble defending Hickson, who can expect to see a lot of double teams. He's averaging 2.6 turnovers a game, and you can expect Duke to try to force him into as many as possible.
This is another serious issue for State: if the players aren't getting along, Duke's defense will just shred them. A key element of basketball, of any team sport really, is trust, and teams with chemistry issues by defnition don't have it. You need a lot of help to cope with Duke's defense, and there's just no way around that.
Conversely, Duke will spread the court and force State to defend away from the basket. Grant can play this game; probably Fells can. We're not as sure about the frontcourt, and the point guards are a work in progress.
Duke has had a lot of success this year which people didn't necessarily expect, looking, understandably, for Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer, or Shelden Williams to show up. But to paraphrase Rick Pitino, none of those guys are coming through the door, people. And it's not like small teams can't win. One of our favorite teams was the Illinois Final Four team of the Ken Norman/Marcus Liberty era. Basically everyone was 6-5 and they were great.
But perhaps the best example of this sort of team is the first two UCLA title teams. The Bruins were similarly sized, and they won by putting on a ferocious defensive pressure. It's not a new formula.
Those Bruins were superb, but they didn't go undefeated: that came later for Wooden. But they're a really good model for this team.