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Duke finally opens ACC play after having already dispatched two ranked opponents, Kansas in the Champions Classic and Michigan State on Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. But the lid-lifter presents a much different challenge.
Louisville? North Carolina?
No, those two perennially ranked ACC rivals are slated later on the schedule. Virginia Tech (6-2) is the foe that poses an unexpected test for the No. 10 Duke (8-1) Friday night at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg.
The Hokies have emerged as a more confounding opponent than was projected at the start of the season. First-year coach Mike Young, who took Wofford College to the NCAA Tournament five times in 17 years at the Big South School, has four new starters clicking and raining three-point field goals.
But this isn’t a case of Young, 56, bringing a new style of play to the ACC. It’s out of necessity with an undersized team forced to utilize a four-guard offense.
“That’s just where we are at this point in our development,” Young said a day before his Hokies upset Michigan State last week in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. “I would like to be able to throw the thing in the post and get fouled more often. I can’t.”
Virginia Tech is third in the nation in three-pointers made per game (12.1) and fifth in three-point percentage (43.1, 97 of 225). Redshirt freshman Landers Nolley II leads the team with 20.0 points a game. The 6-foot-7, 225-pounder has hit 27-of-53 three-pointers (51 percent).
Duke wasn’t confronted by a wing player like Nolley in either the Kansas or Michigan State victories. Kansas, led by point guard Devon Dotson and center Udoka Azubike, is shooting 35 percent from the trey. Michigan State, led by point guard Cassius Winston and center Xavier Tillman, is at 33 percent.
The Hokies’ other three new starters with Nolley are freshman guard Naheim Alleyne (11.8 points a game), junior forward P.J. Horne (9.9) and redshirt freshman guard Tyrece Radford (6.5). Junior point guard Wabissa Bede (6.8 points, 4.5 assists) started 26 of 35 games last year.
ACC SCHEDULE CRITICIZED
If this sounds late for an ACC opener, that’s because of Duke’s annual commitment to the Champions Classic. Duke beat Kansas at Madison Square Garden in New York, while other schools opened ACC play on Nov. 5 or 6. The conference added two dates for a 20-game schedule that bolsters the new ACC Network viewership.
But that’s not the scheduling conflict Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski brought up after his Blue Devils handled No. 11 Michigan State, 87-75, in East Lansing.
“We are placed in a very difficult situation,” Krzyzewski said in his post-game comments. “Our conference put us in a situation where we will get back at 4 in the morning, and we are in the toughest week of our academic year, the week before exams. Two of our kids took tests here (Monday in East Lansing) and now we’ve got to go back (to Durham) and the next day, Thursday, we’ll fly to Blacksburg.”
Duke missing a bowl game for the second time in eight years is an ironic sign of progress. Not long ago, a 5-7 record was a reason for optimism entering spring football, but coach David Cutcliffe has rebuilt the program to include post-season expectations.
“When you don’t get to play in a bowl game, it’s a miserable feeling,” Cutcliffe said. “Our staff, our players are going to assess how things went. We have a lot of work. Right now, I’m focused on how hard we’re willing to work.”
Tom Shanahan is a freelance writer based in Cary and author of “Raye of Light,” a book featuring Fayetteville’s Jimmy Raye as a pioneering black quarterback for College Football Hall of Fame coach Duffy Daugherty on Michigan State’s Underground Railroad football teams of the 1960s.