The Duke Blue Devils will make the trip to Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum to play the Tigers in an underrated, Top-10 matchup on Feb. 4.
Duke rebounded nicely from last week's last-second road loss to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons to trump the Virginia Cavaliers at home, 79-54.
The Blue Devils are 3-1 against ranked opponents this season. The highest-ranking team they've played was Wake Forest, which was ranked No. 6 for the week of the teams' meeting.
Clemson has won two straight, over Georgia Tech (73-59) and Virginia Tech (86-82), after getting dismantled for the umpteenth time in Chapel Hill a couple weeks ago.
The Tigers are 0-2 against ranked teams this season. They lost to Wake Forest by 10 at home, and to UNC by 24 in Chapel Hill. This is no surprise, given Clemson's pathetic non-conference schedule. Clemson's most notable non-conference opponent thus far is Illinois. But back when Clemson played the Fighting Illini, Illinois wasn't ranked, as they are now.
Both teams are built on the same thing: perimeter defense.
Clemson averages nearly 10 steals per game. Duke averages about nine.
Duke's Gerald Henderson and Greg Paulus in particular are threats to get into the passing lanes. Henderson uses his great length to pick off passes and poke the ball away from opposing players, and both utilize their experience in the college game to predict where the ball is going to go.
Duke's perimeter defense is not only strong because of their threats to force turnovers, but also because of the quality of their defense against opposing three-point shooters. Every Blue Devil closes out on shooters quickly, making it very hard for opponents to get decent looks.
Clemson's defense is well balanced, posing challenges to opponents on both the perimeter and in the post. Their guards and three-forward are quick and have active hands, making it easy to steal the ball. Trevor Booker is an indomitable post presence and a threat to earn a double-double every night. He's also one of the better shot blockers in the nation, swatting away about 2.5 shots per game.
Clemson's offense is built on the three-point shot. Even though the Tigers don't take many three's, they still rank 46th in the nation in three-point percentage at 37.6 percent. However, that figure is only 3.7 percent worse than the second-most efficient three-point shooting team in the country.
However, the Tigers will have a hard time getting their three-pointers off against a Duke team that ranks 11th in the nation in three-point percentage allowed, at about 29 percent. Clemson takes about 20 three's per game, but they would be wise to minimize three-point attempts.
They should instead work the ball inside to Booker early, to take advantage of some early, easy points in the paint before Duke seven-foot center Brian Zoubek comes in and establishes a shot-blocking presence for the Blue Devils. Or, if Zoubek makes a surprising start, Clemson still needs to get the ball to Booker to test him against Zoubek early in the game.
If Zoubek doesn't start—just for this one game—then he should be the first reserve to sub into the game for Coach K. At 7'1" and 280 pounds, he's more than big enough to muscle into position on Booker. And if Zoubek can contain Booker, it will be a huge blow to Clemson's already questionable offense.
With Zoubek likely stopping Booker cold and Duke's perimeter defenders rapidly closing out on Clemson's three-point shooters, the Tigers will have to force a lot of turnovers and convert as many of them as possible. But Duke takes care of the ball, so Clemson could be the next in a long line of Duke's ACC opponents that have been held under 60 points.
The Tigers will have a tall order stopping Gerald Henderson when Duke is on offense. Duke's offense runs through Henderson even though he's a forward, and if he gets going, Duke is extremely difficult to contain. What's more, ACC play tends to bring out the best in Henderson. Expect Clemson to slow him down some, but he will still make plays.
But even if Clemson does a better-than-expected defensive job on Henderson, the Blue Devils have several other perimeter scoring threats, such as Kyle Singler (who is also a scoring presence in the post), Greg Paulus, and Nolan Smith.
David McClure helps keep the ball moving efficiently with crisp, accurate passes. And Brian Zoubek can just about reach his right arm up and dump the ball into the basket. None of the Tigers are big enough to keep him from cherry picking down in the post all night long if Duke's three-point threats get quieted.
With its combination of outside-inside offense and turnover-inducing defense, Duke should win this game.