One day after an ACC contender notched an impressive conference road win, another was upset by a less heralded opponent. Behind strong performances from guards Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner, and forward BeeJay Anya, North Carolina State upset preseason league favorite Duke, 87-75, on Sunday at PNC Arena in Raleigh.
Duke had compiled a 14-0 record and climbed to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll thanks to an offense that led the nation in Kenpom’s adjusted efficiency and a defense that ranked more than 100 spots better than where it finished last season. That combination was good enough to score the Blue Devils wins over Michigan State, Temple, Stanford and, in what may go down as the single most impressive road victory of the season, Wisconsin.
On Sunday, Duke didn’t hold up defensively against a hot opponent and the Blue Devils’ offense operated less efficiently than normal.
The Wolfpack shot 55 percent from the field and 62.5 percent (10-for-16) from the three-point line. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Lacey was content to launch over Duke’s smallish backcourt from long range -- he hit five of his seven deep tries -- and met little resistance when driving into the lane. Turner got his fair share of clean looks too, and Anya was able to establish favorable position in the lane.
Still, Duke had been so potent offensively leading into this game that it’s a bit surprising the Blue Devils couldn’t score themselves to safety.
Okafor turned in another strong effort (23 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 12 rebounds and three blocks) but the Blue Devils shot 36.9 percent overall and knocked down only seven of their 27 three-point attempts. NC State deserves credit for contesting shots -- it blocked an impressive 26.3 percent of Duke’s two-point field goal attempts -- and preventing the Blue Devils from running offense smoothly in the halfcourt. The poise that has buoyed Coach K's squad in tight moments this season failed to appear down the stretch.
During an eight-plus minute stint in the second half in which NC State grew its lead from four to 19, Duke committed five turnovers compared to the Wolfpack's one. The Blue Devils settled for less-than-ideal shots as the Wolfpack kept piling on, which strengthened their grip on the game. In addition, Duke point guard Tyus Jones, who has gained widespread renown for his unflappability in critical junctures this season, delivered one of his least productive games to date (just four points on 1-of-6 shooting, including 0-for-3 from three).
The hope for NC State is that this win is more indicative of the team’s true quality than a product of hot shooting, a crazed home crowd and some sluggishness from Duke. The Wolfpack can’t expect to shoot this well on a regular basis -- their effective field goal percentage was nearly 12 points higher than their season average -- but they should be encouraged by Anya’s ability to hold his own in the post against Okafor, the frontrunner to be selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. Anya scored all 14 of his points in the second half.
After the game, NC State head coach Mark Gottfried told CBS’ Greg Anthony that he thought the “biggest thing” for his team in this game was that it scored on the inside.
“Well, this is a monster league, but it gives us confidence,” Gottfried said of the win. “And you have to have a belief in yourself. When you beat good teams, and obviously Duke is a great team, it gives us confidence. Now we can move forward. We’ve had some good moments, but with a young group, we’ve got to figure out how to do it every night, consistently.”
This is a shocking loss for Duke, but perhaps we should have seen it coming. The Blue Devils were tied with Wake Forest with less than five minutes remaining in Wednesday’s game in Winston-Salem, N.C. Neither the Demon Deacons nor the Wolfpack are likely to compete for the ACC championship or even make the NCAA Tournament, but their performances against Duke call into question the perceived hierarchy in the ACC and the national picture, particularly in light of Virginia’s win over the Irish on Saturday.
The same message holds true for No. 1 Kentucky, who began its SEC slate amid peak undefeated hype after the Wildcats appeared to clear their biggest hurdle of the season by beating in-state rival No. 4 Louisville on the road. As it turns out, Kentucky’s biggest tests have come in the last two games against two of the weaker opponents in arguably the weakest Power 5 conference in the country. The Wildcats needed three total overtime periods to handle Ole Miss at home and Texas A&M on the road.
Entering Sunday, the Rebels, Aggies, Demon Deacons and Wolfpack ranked outside the top 40 of Kenpom’s team efficiency ratings, yet each squad was able to hang with or, in the case of NC State, beat a top-3 Kenpom team. Those results cast doubt on the notion that Duke and Kentucky had distinguished themselves as an elite tier above other national contenders. Consider that Virginia and Wisconsin, two other teams in Kenpom’s top five, have opened conference play 6-0 with three road wins between them.
Of course, all small-sample caveats apply here: The Blue Devils and Wildcats have played only two league games. It’s entirely possible either team could go on a dominant run that reasserts their statuses as title frontrunners. In the big picture, take the early results in conference play for exactly what they are: early results. The perceptions developed during November and December will change in different ways over the course of the next two months.