The final month of regular season play includes a brief step out of the ACC for No. 2 Duke.
The Blue Devils (18-2) face St. John’s on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the final time they’ll play a non-ACC team until next month’s NCAA tournament.
St. John’s (16-5) holds the distinction of being the last non-conference team to beat Duke at Cameron. That occurred on Feb. 26, 2000, when the Red Storm won 83-82. Duke’s streak of consecutive non-conference wins on its home court is 146 since then.
That streak, combined with St. John’s toppling Duke, 81-77, at Madison Square Garden last season is on the Blue Devils’ minds, even though the non-conference home winning streak began before some of the current players were born.
“We feel like we owe them one,” Duke junior forward Jack White said. “The last time we lost a non-conference game at Cameron was against St. John’s. So it’s a game we’re really hungry for, we really want to do well in and win, obviously, to make a statement as a team and get better as a team.”
Here are some things to watch as the Blue Devils and Red Storm clash:
Stopping Shamorie Ponds
Last season, Shamorie Ponds poured in 33 points when St. John’s upset Duke.
That was part of a sophomore season that saw Ponds average 21.6 points and 4.7 points per game. This season, the 6-1 junior has scored 20.9 points per game while increasing his assists per game average to 5.7 points.
Clearly, if Duke can find a way to make it tougher for him to score, the Blue Devils will have a better chance of winning.
“We’ll try to force him into tough shots,” Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones said. “Hopefully he’s not making them.”
Ponds is a volume shooter. The fewest shots he’s taken in Big East play was 15 against Marquette on Jan. 1. He took 21 shots while scoring 37 points against Georgetown on Jan. 5.
Jones has proven to be one of the nation’s top on-ball defenders. Even though he missed two games and most of a third last month due to a shoulder injury, Jones has 36 steals. That’s third on the team behind Cam Reddish (40) and Zion Williamson (39).
Ponds represents a serious challenge for Jones and the Blue Devils.
“It’s a lot of things with him,” Jones said. “He scores the ball in a lot of different ways. When he has the ball you’ve got to do what you can to force him into those tough shots. When he doesn’t have the ball, you try to keep it that way because the only way he can score is with the ball. So it’s multiple things overall we just have to make it a tough game for him.”
One week ago, Duke played a Saturday home game that tipped at noon and appeared to sleepwalk through the first half. The Blue Devils scored only 27 points, their lowest first-half output of the season, and trailed Georgia Tech by eight points early in the second half before rallying to win 66-53.
Duke was much more aggressive two nights later at Notre Dame, jumping to leads of 17-2 and 26-7 on the way to an 83-61 win.
The Blue Devils look to play that way early against St. John’s.
“The midday games we’ve played in the past we’ve been a little bit slow out of the gate,” White said after Friday’s practice. “Today was a big emphasis on being locked in now and really being ready to fight and play and compete. You know they are going to bring the game to us, too. They have some good veteran players who are experienced and have been on big stages. So being in Cameron is not something that’s going to take away from their game.”
Will the shots fall? Will it matter?
Duke’s proven to be an inconsistent jump shooting team this season, hitting only 31.1 percent of its 3-point shots. That’s No. 301 in the country.
Last Monday at Notre Dame, Irish coach Mike Brey said he was content to allow the Blue Devils some open jumpers so his defense could focus on cutting off the driving lanes to the basket.
Duke burned Notre Dame by making four of its first six 3-pointers while building a big lead. The Blue Devils hit 10 of 19 3-pointers for a 52.6 percent accuracy that’s the only time they’ve made more than half of their 3-pointers in a game this season.
Duke is a superior team when it comes to shooting inside the arc, though. The Blue Devils have made 58.6 percent of their 2-point attempts, third-best in the country. They also have rebounded 38.1 percent of their missed shots, the fourth-best offensive rebounding percentage in the country according to Ken Pomeroy.
Those two positives should factor into better 3-point shooting so the Notre Dame game becomes more of the norm.
“We’re confident in terms of the personnel we have that we’re able to shoot the ball,” White said. “We’re not short of shooters. I walk out on the court shooting with the guys and we have more than enough guys that can knock down an outside shot. I think getting back to what was a big emphasis for us at the start of the year, the standstill 3s. Especially with the amount of guys we have that can get into the paint, guys have to be ready off the ball.”