As dangerous as this struggling Clemson team can be – and they are dangerous, despite a 3-8 ACC record – the real danger this afternoon is the short turnaround that Duke is attempting after its emotional victory over rival North Carolina Thursday night.
The 1 p.m. tipoff of Duke-Clemson will be almost exactly 39 hours after the team stormed off the court Thursday night, high-fiving and fist-bumping fans en route to their boisterous locker room. Who knows what time they got to bed in the early hours of Friday morning?
Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski understands the tough task handed him by the schedule-makers this week, but Thursday night, he was doing his best to make the best of it.
“We’ll show the maturity of our team by how we respond on Saturday,” he said. “This is a quick turnaround. It’s kind of like the NCAA Tournament where you play that 10 o’clock game on Thursday night, then all of a sudden, you’ve got the 12:15 game on Saturday.
“We’ve got to see if we can handle that.”
There are physical issues. Both of the team’s seniors – Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones – are playing with injuries. They could really use some recovery time.
But there is also a mental aspect to the quick turnaround.
“This game, win or lose, it can give you a loss right after because there is so much attention,” Krzyzewski said.
That’s what Coach K meant by saying the Clemson game will test the maturity of this Duke team. Can they celebrate the UNC win and put it behind them?
Historically, the Devils have handled the UNC aftermath very well. Over the last 20 seasons, Duke is 15-5 in their post-Carolina midseason game.
The five losses were all road games … Duke is a perfect 10-0 in post-UNC home games.
One of the losses came a year ago, when Duke traveled to Louisville three days after a dramatic win in Chapel Hill. But the Devils were without Matt Jones, who hurt himself in the second half of the UNC win. Without that key component, the Devils lost by seven.
Three of the five post-UNC losses were at Maryland (2005, 2007, 2013) in the days when facing the Terps three days after facing UNC was just a brutal task.
Of course, none of those games involved a two-day turnaround. However, Duke has faced that situation before in the last two decades. Amazingly, the Devils are 3-0 on two days rest following the UNC game.
The most recent time that happened was in 2014. The Duke-UNC game was postponed because of snow and ice. When it was played on Thursday night, Feb. 20, the Tar Heels prevailed, 74-66.
Two nights later, Duke took on No. 1 Syracuse in Cameron. The Devils pulled out a hard-fought 66-60 win. That team had a few hours more rest since the Syracuse game was at night, but it was still a formidable turnaround.
Duke might have had a tougher turnaround in 2002 – and it also involved Clemson. The Devils routed UNC 87-58 on Thursday night, Jan. 31, in Chapel Hill. On Saturday, Duke had to travel to Clemson, where the Devils won 98-88.
Then there was 2000 when Duke beat UNC 90-86 in overtime in Chapel Hill on Thursday night Feb. 3. The next Saturday afternoon, Duke faced Virginia (the third-best team in the ACC that season) in Cameron and prevailed 106-86.
So, obviously, it’s not an impossible task. Duke should beat the Tigers.
But how Duke plays will tell us a lot about this team – how Krzyzewski’s team-building efforts are progressing.
I thought the Devils were ready for takeoff in early January, when Duke blew out Georgia Tech, then opened a huge first-half lead on Boston College. Okay, those are two of the weaker teams in the ACC, but they are not the patsies we once thought them to be. Between them, Georgia Tech and Boston College have beaten Syracuse, UNC, Florida State and Notre Dame. And both beat the N.C. State team that won in Cameron.
And Duke was dominating those two teams like the ’99 Blue Devils dominated the rest of the league. The future looked bright.
Then Amile Jefferson injured his foot. The second half of the BC game was a struggle without him. Duke went on the road and struggled without him. Of course, those two road losses were at Louisville and at Florida State, two of the top teams in the country.
Still, Duke was staggering again – and without Mike Krzyzewski on the sidelines. One brilliant half against Miami prevented a home upset there, but the team’s cold shooting – and inability to contain freshman Dennis Smith – promptly led to a disastrous homecourt loss to N.C. State.
At that point, the Devils were reeling.
But interim head coach Jeff Capel – and sophomore guard Luke Kennard – saved the season in Winston-Salem, engineering an incredible rally to beat Wake Forest. That turned everything around. Capel led Duke into South Bend and knocked off a very good Notre Dame team – one that had been a particular Duke nemesis since joining the league.
Then Coach K returned for as tough homecourt victory over Pittsburgh, followed by Thursday night’s glorious victory over UNC.
Suddenly, the same media experts who were talking about Duke’s struggles are suggesting that the Devils are a force to be reckoned with on the national stage.
And, you know what? They were right both times. Duke WAS struggling. And Duke IS now a national contender again.
I happen to think momentum is important. It’s almost like a basketball version of Newton’s Law of Motion. Objects at rest stay at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force. Objects in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.
In basketball teams, teams that are playing well and winning tend to continue to play well and win … just as teams that are struggling tend to continue to struggle.
Check out Notre Dame.
The Irish were playing well and winning close game after close game. Mike Brey’s team was 17-3 and had won eight of nine between late December and mid-January – several in dramatic fashion. Then the team was beaten at home by Virginia and that game seemed to bring the Irish momentum to an abrupt halt. Notre Dame then traveled to Atlanta and lost a heartbreaker to Georgia Tech.
Suddenly, Brey’s team lost four straight (and five of six) before stopping the bleeding with a difficult homecourt win over Wake Forest.
Was that just a temporary balm or will the Irish embark on another run? Stay tuned for tonight’s game when Florida State visits Notre Dame.
We’ve seen the brutal strength of the ACC take its toll this season with Pittsburgh and Clemson and N.C. State. It takes a lot to break a team’s downward spiral.
But it can be done.
Jim Boeheim has pulled Syracuse back from the edge of the abyss. The Orange, given up for dead late in January, used a homecourt victory over Wake Forest to start to turn things around. When they followed that with a homecourt win over Florida State, the Orange had life. But what really turned the season around was when Syracuse went to Raleigh and pulled out an overtime victory over N.C. State – the team’s first win away from the Carrier Dome this season.
Now, Syracuse is on a roll (a five-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the ACC). They will be hard to beat going forward.
Duke is on a similar upward trajectory.
In the last two weeks, both Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard are playing at an all-star level. Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson are contributing at a high level. Harry Giles is showing flashes of his great talent. And even hobbled, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones remain huge factors, especially at the defensive end.
The more Duke wins, the easier winning becomes.
That’s why the Clemson game is so important – to maintain the momentum that the team has built since Luke Kennard hit his game-winning 3-pointer at Wake.
Obviously, a team’s trajectory is rarely smooth. It’s too much to hope that Duke will get better every game. But as long as the trajectory is upward in the long run, the Devils have a chance to accomplish all those special goals this team had before the season.
It’s a short turnaround, yes.
But that should not slow this team’s momentum.