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On The Road Again

The ACC is always tough but this year there are no easy games at all.

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NCAA Basketball: North Carolina State at Duke
Jan 23, 2017; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Jayson Tatum (0) gets a hand in the face as he heads to the basket against North Carolina State Wolfpack forward BeeJay Anya (21) in the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Duke will renew its quest to win a road game Saturday, when the Blue Devils visit Wake Forest’s Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem.

Historically, Duke has not had much problem on the road. In fact, just one Duke team this century (2003) finished with a losing record in ACC road games.

That’s not to say that it’s easy on the road – not compared with playing in Cameron or in the neutral arenas that Coach K loves so much. But compared to its rivals, especially in the ACC, Duke is superb on the road – a collective 93-47 in ACC road games this century.

That includes the tail end of the greatest ACC road run in ACC history – between a Feb. 5, 1998 road loss at North Carolina and a Feb. 14, 2001 road loss at Virginia, the Blue Devils won 24 straight ACC road games. It’s also worth noting that Duke actually has a better record against rival UNC in Chapel Hill this century (11-6) than the Devils’ record against the Heels in Durham (10-7).

So obviously, the road holds no terrors for Duke basketball.

That’s why the start to the 2017 ACC season has been so tough for the Blue Devils to swallow. Duke is off to an 0-3 start on the road, losing at Virginia Tech, at No. 9 Florida State and at No. 14 Louisville.

Of course, it’s worth noting that Duke played each of those teams without a key player – Grayson Allen missed the VPI game due to a suspension and a bone bruise kept Amile Jefferson out of both the FSU and Louisville games.

In addition. Coach Mike Krzyzewski missed the FSU and Louisville trips.

That’s not to say the outcome of those three games would have been different with Duke at full strength and with Coach K on the bench. All three opponents are strong teams – the latter two among the best in the country. Winning at such a game – on the road -- is very difficult and even before the accumulation of internal issues, this Duke team had not established itself as a consistently superior team.

But looking at those three road trips does hint at a major problem for this Duke team – the lineup of ACC road teams is the strongest the Blue Devils have ever faced. In this era of unbalanced schedules, it is arguably the toughest road lineup it was possible for Duke to face.

Let’s be realistic. There are usually some fairly winnable road games on the schedule. Boston College has been a patsy in recent years and Wake Forest hasn’t been competitive since the arrival of Jeff Bzdelik. Georgia Tech has had its struggles in the Brian Gregory era.

In recent years, Duke has been able to pick up some relatively easy ACC road wins against the dregs of the conference.

But not this year.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino made that point earlier this week, when he said, “There is not a bottom to this league.” He was talking about the surprising strength of predicted also-rans Boston College and Georgia Tech, but it led to his take on the astonishing depth of the ACC this season.

For Duke, the problem is compounded by the unbalanced schedule. As much better as Georgia Tech and Boston College are, they are still two of the weakest ACC teams this season, but the Devils don’t get to play them on the road. In fact, if you measure the 15 ACC teams by Pomeroy’s rankings, Duke plays almost the absolute toughest ACC road schedule its possible for the Blue Devils to play.

Duke’s nine road games are all against top 11 ACC teams (again, according to Pomeroy, as of Thursday). The only ones not on the list are Duke itself, which currently ranks fifth in the ACC (No. 15 nationally) and Clemson (seventh in the ACC and 33rd nationally). Duke has road games against three of Pomeroy’s top 10 teams, and eight of his top 50. The only “break” is at Syracuse (No. 58 in the Pomeroy rankings), which is off to a 4-0 home start in the league.

No other team in the ACC plays anything close to that.

Florida State gets two games against the ACC’s bottom teams (below Syracuse). Louisville and Virginia gets three such games each. Four of North Carolina’s road games come against the four worst teams in the ACC. The Tar Heels play just one of the top ACC contenders on the road (Feb. 27 at Virginia), unless you count No. 15 Duke (fifth in the ACC) as a contender.

That’s not to say those are easy games – and UNC has already lost on the road to Georgia Tech (the ACC’s 13th best team, according to Pomeroy). Still, UNC’s schedule is pitiful compared with the one that Duke faces.

[Note: UNC’s overall schedule is almost as easy as possible this season. The Heels get single games at home with Louisville, Florida State, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. They also get Virginia and Duke in the Smith Center, although those are home-and-home games.]


` Duke has enjoyed some recent success in Winston-Salem, winning five of the last six against the Deacons in Lawrence Joel Coliseum.

But before that stretch, Joel was a house of horrors for the Devils. Between 2003 and 2009, Wake Forest won five of six from Duke.

This year’s Deacon team is a mere 2-2 at home in the ACC, losing close games to Clemson and North Carolina. But it should be noted that before Duke lost to N.C. State in Cameron, the Deacons went to Raleigh and edged the Wolfpack in the PNC Center. That was the first road ACC win in Danny Manning’s three-year tenure at Wake and broke a 25-game ACC road losing streak.

Comparative scores can be misleading (for instance the State team that beat Duke in Durham lost at home to the Georgia Tech team that Duke routed by 53 points). Still, the evidence would suggest that Wake Forest has been strides this season and poses a significant threat – especially at home.

But the real questions going into Saturday’s game all revolve around Duke.

Will the Blue Devils still be without Coach Krzyzewski? (probably)

Will Amile Jefferson, who was noticeably hobbling at times in the N.C. State game, be closer to 100 percent after four more days off? (probably)

How will Grayson Allen handle the abuse that he always gets on the road?

And will freshman Harry Giles, a Winston-Salem native who played prep basketball with Deacon freshman Brandon Childress, be the target of Wake Forest fans who once believed that Giles would play for the Deacs? If so, how does he handle it?

Perhaps the key question is whether the Blue Devils can play with the cohesion and passion that marked the great second half against Miami, but was noticeably absent in the first half of that game. Against N.C. State, Duke had some impressive stretches of play, but couldn’t sustain it.

Inconsistency is the mark of a young, inexperienced team. Thanks to the succession of injuries, Duke is more inexperienced than it should be near the end of January, even with four freshmen in the rotation. This team has never been able to settle down and practice and play with its ideal rotation.

It’s not too late for that to happen.

But it would be nice to see the good stretches begin to outnumber the bad stretches. And it would be very nice for Duke to show some toughness on the road. Wake Forest is a good place to start – the Deacons are a dangerous opponent at home, but not the toughest road foe Duke will face.

Another loss wouldn’t mean the end of the season, but it would likely drop Duke outside the top 25 for just the second time since 2007. Indeed, Duke has missed just two polls since 1996 (one week in February last season and the final 2007 poll).

The problems presented by Wake Forest are magnified by what follows 48 hours later – a trip to Notre Dame for a Monday night game with the Irish.

It’s kind of funny, but when the 1995 team was spiraling out of control without Coach K, the team temporarily stopped its slide with a win at Notre Dame. On the other hand, Irish coach Mike Brey has had Duke’s number in the last few years – the former Coach K assistant (who was on the staff during that disastrous 1995 season) has won five of six games vs. Duke since joining the league, including both previous meetings in South Bend.

I’m not big on predictions, but as crazy as the ACC has been this season, I almost think it likely that Duke will lose Saturday at Wake Forest, then improbably bounce back Monday night and knock off the Irish.

That prediction makes no sense, but much of what has happened this season in the league makes no sense.

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