Playing Duke is never easy.
Even in what many are calling a “down year” for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s ball club, the Blue Devils still sit at No. 24 in KenPom.com’s rankings and own a 3-1 conference record, good for fourth in the ACC.
Pitt head coach Jeff Capel, who played at Duke in the late 90s and coached there from 2011-18, will be the first one to tell you: playing Duke is never easy.
“It’s Duke, it’s the gold standard of college basketball,” he said before Tuesday night’s matchup in Pittsburgh. “As long as he is on the sideline, it will be that. I don’t care what their record is or anything. I was there on the last team that didn’t make the tournament as a player. Even though we were 2-14, we stunk, we sucked, there were still people storming the court when they beat us. So, it’s still Duke, it doesn’t matter, and our guys are definitely up for it.”
The Panthers (7-2, 3-1 ACC) are currently on a two-game win streak after multiple postponements caused them to face Syracuse in back-to-back games. Pitt won both of those games, the first with a huge comeback and the second a dominant performance the entire way, proving they could beat the zone. Now, as Capel adds, Pitt has a new challenge that it has not seen in almost a month: playing against a man-to-man defense.
“This game presents different challenges,” he said. “Number one, we haven’t played against man to man since Dec. 22. We have played just two games against zone, and they [the Blue Devils] are a man-to-man team that’s going to pressure, that’s going to switch things, that’s going to do things differently, and so that’s a different challenge for us. For the last couple of weeks we’ve been trying to figure out how to attack a zone. Guarding a guy like Hurt, and especially the way coach uses him. He’s a difficult matchup. Trying to figure that out. So those are the things that we have tried to concentrate on. Look, Everyone can talk about best win, whatever, it’s over with. We are focused on Duke and hopefully we can have a really good win tomorrow.”
Calling Matthew Hurt just a “difficult matchup” is an understatement. Hurt is as versatile a player you will see in the ACC, standing at 6-foot-9, averaging 19.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, and shooting at a 44.4% mark from beyond the arc. Other than Hurt, Duke will receive the majority of its scoring production from freshmen DJ Steward, Jeremy Roach, and Jalen Johnson. Johnson, after missing over a month due to a foot injury, made his return last Tuesday, Jan. 12, against Virginia Tech. He only played four minutes in that game, scoring two points and dishing out one assist.
However, after another week between his last game and tonight’s matchup has given Johnson’s foot more time to heal. He will most likely play a large role against Pitt, and will undoubtedly make an impact on the offensive end of the floor. Johnson is 6-foot-9, 220 pound forward with NBA potential. Capel knows that guarding him, as well as Duke’s other young guns, will be no easy task.
“They play hard and you can tell they really care and they’re going to be a good team,” he said on Monday. “It seems like they’re a little bit healthier now. Listening to the conference call this morning, it looks like Johnson’s going to play, he’s been practicing. He’s one of the more talented freshmen in the country. I know before the season, early in the season, he was a mock draft top ten guy. When you introduce that back with the improvements from earlier in the year of Steward, of Roach, Hurt is one of the best players in the country, they’re good, they just haven’t been dominant like some previous Duke teams.”
Capel’s squad will look to continue their two-game win streak Tuesday night at 9 p.m. as they host Duke on ESPN.