For clarification I do think the game between No. 1 Duke and No. 20 NC State on Saturday is a big game, in fact it is the biggest game between these two teams since the early 2000s if not the 1980s.
However, there are no titles at stake, and while both teams are at the top of the ACC standings, the conference is only two games old. It isn’t like a loss for either teams takes them out of the running for the regular season title. The fact is this game is really only a major deal for NC State and its fan base because honestly it has been a good long while since they’ve been relevant and won a game like this.
Don’t get me wrong, Duke fans want this win but many do see it in the same light and it isn’t like Blue Devils fans get as up for these games as they do the North Carolina game.
NC State fans look at this game and see a chance to flex their new muscles and live up to their preseason hype. They were, after all, pegged as the top team in the league by the members of the ACC media and while they have been a good team they haven’t exactly been a dominant team.
They have as good a lineup and as much talent as anyone, but they have not been overly impressive of late and have yet to beat another ranked team this season. Duke in contrast has beaten several and has been much more convincing in games against teams which they were heavily favored.
But in a rivalry game anything is possible even if this isn’t really the rivalry that Duke fans live for. The Wolfpack are good enough to beat Duke and perhaps have an even better chance with Ryan Kelly sidelined for four weeks if not longer. Now that isn’t an excuse and there has been a lot of hand wringing over Kelly’s status, but the fact is Duke could lose to NC State with or without him. That said, they can also still beat the Wolfpack with or without him.
Duke without Kelly will have to find someone to try to match up with CJ Leslie who along with Lorezno Brown are arguably the Wolfpack’s two best players. Brown has been superb at times and it will be interesting to see who the Blue Devils put on him in an effort to slow him down. Leslie presents his own match-up up problems as well so whoever Duke matches up with him will be important to the outcome of the game.
In the post Richard Howell has been vastly improved and has avoided, to an extent, some of the foul issues that have cost him and NC State in past years. Mark Gottfried’s group runs a up tempo offense and with freshmen TJ Warren and Rodney Purvis they want to get the ball in transtion. They also want to get Scott Wood some good looks at the basket as he is the Wolfpack’s best shooter.
Make no mistake the Blue Devils have their hands full. Mason Plumlee has to step up his game as he hasn’t been quite as dominant in the last three games as he has been for the rest of the season. Rasheed Sulaimon’s scoring has tapered off lately and without Kelly, he is going to have to step up on both ends of the floor.
Who fills Kelly’s spot and how productive he is, is also something to keep an eye on. I took a look at that on Thursday and essentially feel that Alex Murphy and Amile Jefferson will have to be more productive going forward and it starts with NC State.
There are a lot of story lines and subplots to this particular game. It is as big a game as the Wolfpack have hosted in quite some time from the stand point that they are considered one of the front runners in the conference. And the fact that it comes against Duke, a team that draws out the vitriol in every fan base makes it even a more intense match up for them. How they handle that will be key.
Duke is use to the spot light and this isn’t their first rodeo this year with a ranked team. Some NC State fans I’ve seen are going nuts and talking quite a bit about this game and if the Wolfpack players buy into the hype and talk too much they may not be as focused as they need to be. It will be up to Mark Gottfried to keep his team grounded and if succeeds the Wolfpack have a real shot to win on Saturday.
But again win or lose don’t expect it to crush Duke or make NC State the run-away favorite for the conference. You just can’t make too much out of a game that at this point won’t have much bearing on the rest of the season. It’s a big game just not as big as some think.
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