To be the best, you have to beat the best. The Duke Blue Devils aren't quite at the top of the men's college basketball world, but they're close at No. 9 in the AP Poll. Beating them wouldn't automatically turn around Notre Dame's men's basketball season. At 2-9 in the ACC, the growing pains expected for the Irish this season have certainly been prevalent. But a victory against Duke, on the road in front of a raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd, would just about make head coach Micah Shrewsberry's first year as head coach a success all on its own.
It would also restore the good vibes surrounding the program at the start of 2024, when the Irish hung close with two of the top four teams in the ACC (including Duke) before a road win against Georgia Tech on Jan. 9. Since then, though, Notre Dame has lost six straight, with three of the last four defeats coming by at least 10 points.
The game before that win was Notre Dame's first meeting this year with the Blue Devils. The Irish defense was on point, holding Duke to just 67 points and a 35.6% field goal rate, both season-lows for Duke at that point in the season. Only one Blue Devil — potential 2024 NBA 1st round pick Mark Mitchell — who attempted more than two shots had a field goal percentage over 50%. The teams were even in many categories, but the Irish let the game slip away at the free-throw line, going 8-16 in an eight-point loss. Though both teams committed a similar number of turnovers, the Blue Devils capitalized for 18 points off takeaways while Notre Dame only managed five.
Still, the Irish hung around, as the Irish got within 4 points several times in the final five minutes but couldn't narrow the gap to one score. Overall, it was an encouraging performance from the young Irish, who proved they can hang around with a top-end team. Doing so again would be huge in helping the team regain confidence.
SInce beating the Irish, Duke has gone 6-2. Both teams will enter Cameron Indoor with a chip on their shoulder — Notre Dame from its losing streak, Duke from suffering a tough loss to its biggest rival, No. 3 North Carolina. The Tar Heels hung 93 points on their rivals at home in Chapel Hill to secure a signature victory. The Blue Devils were also upset by Pitt at home on Jan. 20 and survived a similar bid from Clemson on Jan. 27, winning by just a point.
Still, the Blue Devils are a few spots higher in the AP Poll than they were the first time they faced Notre Dame. Historically, Duke has dominated Notre Dame, especially at home, losing just twice at Cameron to the Irish (one of those games occurred in 2021 when fans weren't allowed to attend due to COVID-19). Five members of the team average at least 10 points per game — Kyle Filipowski, Jeremy Roach, Jared McCain, Mitchell and Tyrese Proctor. All except Roach are underclassmen, as the Blue Devils are once again blessed with an abundance of young, potential NBA-level talent.
Duke’s balanced attack has driven the team’s success this season. The Blue Devils are second in the ACC in scoring and fourth in defense. For the Irish to win, they must take advantage of whatever edges they can find. One of those is rebounding, where the Irish sit at sixth in the conference with 36.5 boards per game, nearly a full rebound more than ninth-place Duke.
The Irish and Blue Devils tip-off from one of college basketball's most iconic venues at 9 p.m. on Wednesday. The game is available to watch on the ACC Network.