Next up for Duke is State, a team which needs no introduction to Duke fans.
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Like Duke, StateÂ was forecast to have a brilliant season, but like Duke, injuries and circumstance have cost the Pack. State lost to Miami without ace point guard Lorenzo Brown, but barely. The Pack scored immensely satisfying wins over Duke and UNC, but followed each with losses, to Maryland on a last-second tip-in and then to Virginia at Virginia.
Until losing to Miami, after the Virginia loss, State had been on a win-one-lose-one pattern. The prospect of losing three straight is not going to go over well. State is already in fifth place, not somewhere most thought they'd be.
Duke started their run without Ryan Kelly against State and had a narrow loss. They bottomed out at Miami with an ugly loss and have since played much better.
The seniors, Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry, have been reliable and very good. It's really impressive for Curry who has played the entire season with a leg injury which makes it difficult for him to practice.
The key though has probably been the play of the freshmen. Rasheed Sulaimon did a remarkable job defending FSU's Michael Snaer, who was a non-factor in that game until quite late. And while Amile Jefferson cannot replace Ryan Kelly, he brings an ability in the lane that no else on the team really has. He can maneuver in traffic and rebound in a crowd, which Plumlee can do to an extent, but not with the same fluidity.
Duke will probably be favored, but there are some wild cards to bear in mind. First, it's not clear whether Lorenzo Brown will play or not. Second, Josh Hairston will not.
People who don't pay close attention will think, well big deal. Well, it is.
Though Hairston averages just 2.1 ppg and 2.1 rpg, he is a big key for Duke because he can back up Plumlee, Kelly and Jefferson. With Jefferson periodically foul-prone, and given how much trouble he had against State the first time, it's a really big deal.
The beneficiary of any problems is likely to be Alex Murphy, and as we have seen at times this year, Murphy offers a lot. Hairston, as Coach K said the other day, has built equity. This could be Murphy's chance to build his own.
As you may remember, we have at times talked about our theory of ACC desperation: that the conference DNA really kicks in when a team is in a tight spot. Not when it's over. It doesn't necessarily apply to, say, Wake Forest.
But no team in this conference is more dangerous than when the season appears to be in danger. For State, that point is not quite there, but it's not far away, either. They could really use a big win and surprise! - here's their chance for one.
Win this game and they get a lot more credibility. Win it without Brown and they get even more.
And they have tools to do just that: Duke has no natural answers to Richard Howell and CJ Leslie, as the Raleigh game showed. Howell famously said he'd get all the second-half rebounds and pretty much did; Jefferson was not ready to defend Leslie and fouled out in 12 minutes. His anxiety came through loud and clear on TV, images that the staff likely has put on a video and shown to him repeatedly.
Sulaimon, too, was rattled. He shot 0-10 and Scott Wood scored 14. We'd say there's a reasonable chance that that advantage is neutralized this time.
It's also worth mentioning that Marshall Plumlee has come along since last time, as has the team. Their performance in Tallahassee was eye-opening and something to build on. You can't guarantee that kind of shooting, but the confidence and purpose were great to see.
Let's hope we see more in Cameron.