The Duke Blue Devils will face their first true road test of the season this Saturday when they travel to Raleigh to take on No. 20 North Carolina State.
It is the first marquee game of the ACC season, and the winner of this contest will have an early leg up in the race to win the regular-season conference championship.
Duke enters the game on a 15-game winning streak and ranked No. 1 in the country. However, this will be the first game the Blue Devils are playing without Ryan Kelly, the 6'11" senior forward who is out indefinitely after injuring his foot in the game against Clemson.
The loss of Kelly will be difficult to overcome, and these five keys will be critical to Duke extending its win streak to 16 games and notching the victory over the Wolfpack.
Although NC State is extremely talented, the Wolfpack lack depth on the front line. If Duke makes it a priority to attack the basket and get the ball inside, they have a good chance at creating foul problems for NC State.
Mason Plumlee has been relatively quiet in Duke's past two games, but he will need to be aggressive and demand the ball in the paint on Saturday. At 6'10", Plumlee will have a significant size advantage over anyone NC State tries to use to defend him.
Plumlee will likely be guarded by Richard Howell, a 6'8", 260-pound senior forward for the Wolfpack. Howell is a talented and physical player but often finds himself in foul trouble. Howell has already fouled out in four games this season, including NC State's two losses.
Duke will need Plumlee to attack the basket when he receives the ball in the post, and the guards must not settle for jump shots. If the Blue Devils can successfully attack the basket, it should also open up opportunities from the perimeter.
After his strong performance against Ohio State, it looked like Rasheed Sulaimon was poised to become one of the most explosive freshman scorers in the country.
Instead, Sulaimon has struggled on the offensive end, shooting just 9-for-30 in the team's past four games. Fortunately for Duke, the freshman guard hasn't let his poor shooting affect the rest of his game as he has increased his rebounding and remained one of the team's better defenders.
In Saturday's game against NC State, Sulaimon will need to regain his shooting touch. With Ryan Kelly out, Sulaimon will be one of the players who needs to step up to make up for the scoring that will be missed in Kelly's absence.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski talked after the Clemson game about how Sulaimon's confidence is a bit shaken in this shooting slump:
"He's a young player and they're more fragile. I think a younger player sees a miss as a mistake. But it's just a miss." - Duke Basketball Report
Duke will need Sulaimon to be fearless against NC State and knock down his shots when he gets them.
Duke will have its hands full with Lorenzo Brown, NC State's point guard, who was just named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award.
Brown is the catalyst of the NC State offense and he's coming off of one of his best games of the season. Against Georgia Tech, Brown finished with 21 points, 10 assists and five rebounds. If Brown has another game like that on Saturday, Duke's 15-game winning streak could be in serious jeopardy.
It will be critical for Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton to play tough defense against Brown and force him into mistakes.
Cook has played well in Duke's other games against marquee point guards this season, and Saturday will provide him another opportunity to shine on a national stage.
When Lorenzo Brown struggles, NC State struggles. In the Wolfpack's two losses this season, Brown had a total of 12 points and eight turnovers. Look for Mike Krzyzewski to do everything he can to frustrate Brown and his rhythm.
Much has been made about Duke's reliance on a short rotation this season, and Saturday will be an opportunity to see how deep the Blue Devils are.
With Ryan Kelly injured, Mike Krzyzewski will be forced into making a change in the starting lineup, and he will probably try to replace Kelly with a committee of players.
Josh Hairston is the likely candidate to replace Kelly as a starter, but Amile Jefferson, Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee could all see significant minutes in this game.
Whether it is Hairston making mid-range jump shots, Marshall Plumlee attacking the offensive glass or Alex Murphy slashing to the basket, there will be opportunities for these guys to make plays.
If they can step up and play well in a hostile environment against a good team, Duke has a great chance to win.
Duke's margin of victory this season has been nearly 19 points per game. When you are winning games by that many points, people don't pay much attention to your free-throw shooting.
However, in Duke's first two ACC games, the Blue Devils are 17-for-36 from the free-throw line, which equals 47 percent. Even Shaq was better than that.
Taking advantage of opportunities at the foul line will be critical in this game, especially if Duke is successful at attacking the basket. Getting to the free-throw line is meaningless when you don't convert.
It will also be important to pay attention to whether or not Duke misses the front end of one-and-one opportunities at the free-throw line.
When they make it to the line, Mason Plumlee and his teammates will need to focus and take advantage of these points. Against a team like NC State, Duke can't afford to leave points on the table.