59 days. 1,416 hours. 84,960 minutes. 12 nights. Mike Krzyzewski has only had time. Time to prepare. Time to create lineups. Time to instill confidence in his core of Freshman before their first exam of a new semester, with adversity as the subject of study.
The spring semester is rearing its head over Durham’s esteemed campus, and Duke basketball is ringing in the new year with their first game against an ACC opponent. The time for speculation is over and we will finally get to see how Duke’s latest main attraction — Coach K’s crux of Freshmen in Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Tre Jones, and Cam Reddish — will respond to the hostile environment of an in-conference game. They know it gets harder from here at this point. They know that the score will not display a scoring difference of 20 points and above.
This matchup is widely favorable for the Blue Devils, but it’s probably going to be close. Returning senior guard Marcquise Reed and the Clemson Tigers are, without surprise, battle-tested in this evolving season. Clemson Head Coach Brad Brownell has been awaiting this moment and feels that the opportunity to begin 2019 with an astronomical upset that would presumptuously cause a tectonic shift to the landmark that is the Associated Press Top 5.
And if anyone knows a thing about Brownell’s Tigers, they are not the pushovers you’d expect them to be. Just a couple months ago, they rocked Auburn, in perhaps the second most unpredictable upset of the 2018 NCAA national tournament. Their brand of brutish, physical basketball that they showcased against last year’s Auburn Tigers will be exactly displayed against Duke’s young core — and they should expect that.
Yet, Duke’s first exam to determine just how “ready” they are will take place on familiar soil, amongst the passionate and abrasively-loud Cameron Crazies in Cameron Indoor Stadium. That being said, here are 4 big things to watch for in tomorrow night’s primetime bonanza on ESPN.
1. Expect Duke’s Fab Four to attack early and often.
Duke leads the country in scoring margins (27.8) so it would come as irreverent to point out that contributions from Zion, RJ, Cam, and Tre did not help that number. The four, who are all projected to be early first-round picks in June’s NBA draft in Brooklyn, put up just about 66 points a game. For a program that’s looking to make a national statement, Clemson wants to challenge the legitimacy of that number.
Reed, their leading scorer at an average of 20.1 ppg and his backcourt mate Shelton Mitchell, who is scoring about 13 ppg, will have their hands full in trying to guard RJ Barrett (23.8 ppg) and Tre Jones (8.7 ppg), who both shoot a little under 32% from deep but combine for 31 points a game.
2. Clemson’s Huge Frontcourt will cause difficulty for Duke.
Standing at a behemothic 6-9 and weighing 245 pounds, Elijah Thomas is having himself a demonstrative season. He brings down boards with ferocity, accumulating an average of over 7.6 rpg while scoring a little over 13 points a game. Teammate Aamir Sims is no easy man to box out for possessions as well. He stands at 6-7 and weighs about 248 pounds while averaging about 10 ppg and 4.7 rpg.
Zion Williamson leads the team in rebounds, though he will have to go up against his most powerful matchups yet. It will be interesting to see the rotations Coach K puts on the floor to give proportionate minutes to the likes of Jack White and Javin Delaurier, who equally provide defense down low and inside presence whenever their numbers are called.
3. Will there be a layoff for Duke after two weeks of inactivity?
Coach Mike Krzyzewski is a natural master of adaptation and adjustment. 30+years of coaching will do that. So doubt surely ensues that will occur. But with a core of freshmen who have never had to adjust quicker heading into the important competition, you can never really tell, regardless of how talented they may be.
Two weeks after their pulsating victory against Texas Tech in the Ameritas Insurance Classic at the Madison Square Garden on December 20, and an easy 20 point home win against Princeton, Duke is looking to regain the same traction they found at year’s end, play loose and proactively capitalize off of the physical basketball Clemson plays.
4. Can Zion, Be Zion?
It’s safe to say this is a game chock full of storylines for the assumed first overall pick. The Spartanburg native who, if you are unaware, was on his way to a full commitment with the Clemson Tigers. The born and bred South Carolinian’s stepfather attended Clemson and once Zion’s talent showcase of a senior year at Spartanburg High School, Tigers fans and school attendees thought they were destined to see Zion put on the orange hat on his signing day.
They thought that, after they demolished Auburn, their chances of getting Zion to stay in-state skyrocketed. Turns out, they were not farther from the truth. So on Saturday, Clemson fans get their first glimpse of Williamson, but not in Clemson orange.
The big question lies in how, or if, Zion Williamson doesn’t play constrained as he has for some games this year. When he goes up against those beefy and lengthy Clemson bigs Saturday night with the country watching, a story will be told to not only college ball fans everywhere, but to scouts everywhere who highly regard him as the most dominant player in college basketball.
For the Duke Blue Devils, the time they’ve had to prepare for this day is up. Time to put the books away, because the exam has begun.
The first scheduled game of ACC competition tips off on ESPN on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 at 8 p.m. ET.