I know it’s easy to make assumptions about No. 1 Duke at No. 20 NC State on Saturday. The upset chatter has increased since Duke announced that Ryan Kelly had suffered a foot injury and would not play this weekend.
So the Blue Devils will fall in Raleigh, right? … Hold on. I don’t think it’s that simple. I’m still picking Duke for these five reasons:
North Carolina State has struggled in big games. I know the Wolfpack has improved since November. Mark Gottfried’s squad has won nine consecutive games. But those matchups against Oklahoma State (76-56 loss Nov. 18 in the Puerto Rico Tipoff) and No. 2 Michigan (79-72 loss Nov. 27 in Ann Arbor) were opportunities for North Carolina State to prove that it was as good as the preseason buzz assumed it was. But it didn’t do that. Instead, the team just confirmed the lingering concerns. This is essentially the same talented crew that went 9-7 in the ACC last season because it couldn’t tussle with the elite teams in the league. The program hasn’t offered proof that anything has changed.
Plumlee will step up. Kelly had the league’s best plus-minus ratio (plus-190) per ESPN Stats & Info. The 6-foot-11 sharpshooter (52.1 percent from the 3-point line) stretches defenses with his versatility and takes pressure off Duke’s backcourt and interior threat Mason Plumlee. But Plumlee (17.7 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 1.6 BPG) will step up. He’s at a disadvantage with Kelly sidelined. But the national player of the year candidate has found a way to carry the Blue Devils in pivotal matchups against a variety of defensive schemes. NC State will double, and he’ll adjust. Yes, he’ll have his challenges without Kelly. Plumlee’s resume, however, suggests that he’ll rise.
Defense is a problem for the Wolfpack. Before you get caught up in lineups and injuries and matchups, take a look at NC State’s defense. That unit is ranked 167th in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings. The Wolfpack doesn’t play intimidating D. “Soft” is a much better description. Yes, NC State has the ACC’s best scoring offense (81.3 ppg), but the squad has lost games and struggled in others because of its defensive gaps. That’s a problem in a matchup against a Duke team that’s eighth in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. The Blue Devils play tough on both ends of the floor. NC State? Not so much.
Blue Devils will make N.C. State pay for Lorenzo Brown’s mistakes. The Duke backcourt has as much depth and skill as any group in the country. Rasheed Sulaimon, Seth Curry, Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton are critical players for Duke’s combative defense. They’re going to pressure Brown all afternoon. And that has been a problem this season for NC State. The point guard is so crucial for that NC State attack. Proof? Check out his stat lines in the Wolfpack’s two losses (2-for-9, 6 points, 1 assist, 7 turnovers against Oklahoma State; 3-for-10, 6 points, 10 assists, 1 turnover against Michigan). He’s such a catalyst for Gottfried’s program. But his errors will cost this team Saturday. Brown has committed four or more turnovers in seven games this season. That’s going to be NC State's biggest issue on offense.
Duke has Coach K, NC State does not. Duke is guided by a man named Mike Krzyzewski. His career accomplishments speak for themselves. He thrives in these situations. I’m sure he hears the naysayers plotting postgame parties to celebrate Duke’s first loss. They’re feeding off the news about Kelly’s injury. And now, Coach K has to conjure up a winning strategy that does not include one of his best players. That’s great for Duke, bad for everyone else. You’re putting the greatest coach of all time into a “prove it” situation? Well, he will. He has overcome obstacles throughout his tenure. He has lost key players to injuries. He has been in so many battles. But every now and then, he has to remind folks that he’s still one of the best coaches in the game. Saturday is the perfect opportunity for Coach K to do that. Again.