Look no further than last year's home contest against No. 23 Wake Forest. The Deacons, still ranked and coming off a road loss to Virginia Tech, went into a full tailspin after falling 68-54 to the Wolfpack that day. The Pack used that victory to springboard to a 5-2 finish against its final seven conference opponents, including a run to the tournament semifinals.
A win against Duke could provide the same springboard effect for this Pack team. With three prominently featured freshmen, a win could give the Pack the confidence it needs to make a run in the wide-open Atlantic Coast Conference.
Make no mistake – despite Duke's recent struggles they are still the class of the ACC. But they aren't invincible. Here are five keys to beating the Blue Devils.
Dominate The Boards
If the Devils have a real weakness it's on the glass. Using rebounding percentage, the Devils have been out-rebounded by some very unassuming foes – Bradley, UNC Greensboro and Princeton to name a few.
Getting second-chance opportunities and limiting Duke to one shot offensively goes a long way to keeping up with the Devils. With Smith still recovering from his knee injury the Pack's two best rebounders are – by a wide margin – Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie.
Lowe will have to find a way to get both of them on the court at the same time to take advantage of the Devils' rebounding problems.
The Pack has actually been pretty good with ball security so far this season – if the season ended today their turnover percentage would be the lowest of any Pack squad under Lowe. And while this isn't the Duke teams of old that thrive off turnovers, things can still get out of hand quickly if the Devils combine a few long baskets with a few Pack turnovers.
Gonzalez, Harrow and Brown all need to limit mental breakdowns and unforced errors to give the Pack as many shots as possible against Duke's stingy defense.
Pound It Inside
The Blue Devils have a lot of talent and depth at the guard position, but as evidenced by their rebounding numbers their big men aren't at the same level.
The Devils will not want to risk getting do-everything forward Kyle Singler in foul trouble. That means Leslie, Howell and especially Smith should be able to operate in the post against a cautious Singler and the hack-tastic Plumlee brothers. Smith had 23 points in the Pack's upset win last year and could do even more damage this year against Duke's interior defense.
Pounding the ball into the paint should be priority No. 1 for State offensively.
Defend The 3
If you've watched Duke basketball sometime in the last two decades, you've probably noticed that they like to take a lot of 3-pointers.
The Blue Devil program has always had an assortment of outside weapons and this year is no different – from Liberty transfer Seth Curry to sophomore big man Ryan Kelly – nearly everyone on the Duke roster is a threat from beyond the arc. The Devils hit over 40 percent of its 3s – a comparable number to Boston College who hit 9-of-23 from deep against the Pack.
Holding the Devils to below their average will require defensive intensity from everyone on the court – Duke will take advantage the smallest windows and find the open man.
Avoid The Lull
Ultimately, the other four keys above hinge on one question – can the Pack play a consistent 40 minutes of basketball? In December, the Pack would have stretches of play where it would allow inferior teams to take leads or hang around too long. The trend has carried over into the New Year, as a pair of bad stretches cost them a winnable game against Boston College and led to a blowout loss to Florida State.
If this team gives maximum effort for 40 minutes it has the talent to challenge the Blue Devils, but even a short stretch of sluggish play could bury the Pack.