Two ACC teams from North Carolina will meet in a pivotal conference game, but it’s not those two teams.
While the Duke-UNC rivalry garners most of the national attention focused on the area each college basketball season, the first in-state showdown of this ACC season will come a couple hours to the west when Duke travels to surprising Wake Forest on Wednesday night.
The Demon Deacons went 10-1 in the nonconference season and enter Wednesday’s contest at 13-3, 3-2 in the ACC. Wake is a perfect 10-0 at home on the year, after overcoming Syracuse in overtime the last time out. The Deacs have won two straight, blowing out Florida State 76-54 in Winston-Salem before hosting Syracuse.
Duke, meanwhile, appeared to be rolling along, ending the calendar year with an 11-1 record and winning its ACC opener. The Blue Devils had wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga in the nonconference schedule. Then COVID hit, forcing the program to shut down briefly as Duke was returning from a holiday break. After nearly two weeks away, the Blue Devils looked rusty in a win over Georgia Tech, then lost to Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday. Duke enters the game at 12-2, 2-1 in the conference, and looking to get back on track.
Miami’s experienced guards dominated play on Saturday, giving Wake coach Steve Forbes a blueprint for beating the Blue Devils.
“One thing that’s hard to defend is they’re so good off the dribble, they draw attention, draw help, and then you lose sight of your man and what happens? Boop! Back door,” Forbes said. “Then you get on them and they drive or hit a 3 from the logo. It’s hard. We try to play that way — try to spread you out and drive it. That’s how Miami plays. That’s how we play. We’re not going to change on Wednesday.”
Forbes sees some similarities between the Deacs and the Canes, to a point.
“We’ve got good guards,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re that good.”
Wake’s backcourt includes senior Daivien Williamson (12.9 points per game), junior wing Jake LaRavia (14.9 points, 3.4 assists) and Alondes Williams, who is one of the ACC’s leading scorers at 20.4 points per game. He also leads the team with 5.1 assists.
“He has the ability to see the floor and read defenses,” Forbes said of Williams. “He’s a good teammate. He’s made two passes as the leading scorer — one to win the game against Charlotte and one to tie the game against Syracuse. He’s not one of those guys who feels like he has to make the play.”
Wake also has plenty of size — Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski calls the Deacs “one of the biggest teams in the country.” They feature 7-footer Dallas Walton (8.2 points, 5.2 rebounds. 1.6 blocks) and 6-foot-10 veteran Khadim Sy, who Forbes jokes played for Virginia Tech “10 years ago” before “playing for every college team in the nation.”
Duke has bigs of its own to pair with talented guards. Paolo Banchero (17.3 points, 7.5 rebounds) and Mark Williams (8.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.1 blocks) man the paint, while veterans Wendell Moore (16.0 points, 4.9 assists) and Jeremy Roach (9.0 points, 3.0 assists) run the show. Freshmen wings AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels also provide scoring spurts.
However, Duke has struggled to find its early-season mojo following the break in play.
“The main thing is to get back into a high level of conditioning and familiarity with one another,” Krzyzewski said. “One of the reasons we had so many turnovers (17 against Miami) is we haven’t played together.”
The lack of floor time has also hurt Duke on the other end of the floor.
“It hurt our defense immensely,” he said. “The first thing that goes when you do not practice is talk, where you communicate. I didn’t think — well, I know — we didn’t have good talk. Your movements become reactionary, not anticipatory. That’s where we’re at. We’ve got to get back. You can talk X’s and O’s all day, but X’s and O’s need to be drilled and practiced and played.”
While Duke tries to get back what it had, Wake is in the process of showing that its early success was no fluke. The Deacs dropped two straight games, allowing Miami to shoot more than 60%, in the first week of ACC play before rebounding with the FSU and Syracuse wins, holding the two foes to 24% and 36% shooting, respectively.
“We’ve made a big jump this week,” Forbes said. “When I came home a week ago, I was pretty grumpy. … We’re going in the right direction. Are we totally there yet? No.”
Neither Duke nor Wake is where they want to be, but both teams can take a big step forward as the road to ACC success again runs through Tobacco Road.