When Yale last travelled to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium for a Nov. 25, 2015 contest against the Blue Devils, the teams’ first matchup since 1973, head coach James Jones told counterpart Mike Krzyzewski before tipoff that “it’s a great idea to schedule Duke until you actually got to play the game.”
Many coaches have thought the same. In fact, Duke, who defeated the Bulldogs 80–61 in 2015 and again 71–64 in the second round of that season’s NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, has not lost a nonconference game at home since Feb. 26, 2000.
At the start of another promising season, the Bulldogs (4–2, 0–0 Ivy) will travel to Durham, North Carolina this weekend to take on No. 3 Duke (8–1, 0–0 ACC) with hopes of ending their opponent’s historic streak Saturday afternoon. Duke enters the contest amid virtually unprecedented hype around a trio of freshmen forwards – 6-foot-7-inch RJ Barrett, 6-foot-8-inch Cam Reddish and 6-foot-7-inch Zion Williamson – whom some analysts expect to make up the 2019 NBA Draft’s top three picks. Two dozen former Duke players currently play for NBA teams.
“We got a lot of experience on this team,” captain and forward Blake Reynolds ’19 said. “Our seniors on this team have already played in Cameron before, so we’ve already got to see what that’s like. I don’t think we’ll go in there nervous or anything. I think we’re experienced, and we’ll be composed and ready to go.”
As first years, both Reynolds and guard Trey Phills ’19 saw playing time against the Blue Devils. Reynolds played a then career high 15 minutes off the bench during Yale’s regular season contest at Cameron Indoor, collecting four points and four rebounds against a squad that included future NBA talent such as Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen. Guard Alex Copeland ’19 and forward Thomas Ryan ’19 also made the trip. Phills, meanwhile, sparked off the bench when Yale faced Duke at March Madness. After a ferocious second half, the 12th-seeded Bulldogs almost upset Duke in what would have been the NCAA tournament’s largest-ever comeback. They ultimately lost by seven.
With only one player remaining from the team that last faced the Elis, the Blue Devils come into Saturday’s game fresh off of a 30-point Wednesday night win against Hartford that saw Barrett score 27 points, snag 15 rebounds and dish out four assists. Seven of Duke’s eight victories, one of them against then-No. 2 Kentucky, have been blowouts.
“Going down there to Durham is like going to a museum,” Jones said. “They have every bell and whistle you can think of for a basketball player, so our guys get to be in that environment for a day and then playing in that arena in that environment should toughen you up to do anything we have to do in the Ivy League. When you go to play anywhere in our league, it’s not going to be as contentious as it is down in Durham.”
The Blue Devils escaped with narrow 78–72 victory against No. 8 Auburn in the second round of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational in Hawaii last month. In the final of that tournament, Duke faced its toughest opponent, No. 1 Gonzaga, in a down to the wire contest. Trailing by 16, the Blue Devils fought back and had a chance to tie on the contest’s final possession. But Gonzaga forward Brandon Clarke blocked Barrett’s layup, and Duke suffered its first loss of the season.
A testament to its status as a college basketball juggernaut, all but two of Duke’s 31 regular-season games are broadcast this year on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or CBS.
“Once you’re on the court playing, you’re familiar with a lot of guys — they play travel ball, so it’s not like anything we haven’t seen,” Phills said. “We’ve played the number one draft pick, [Markelle Fultz], in Washington, beat them two years ago, and we’ve played a lot of other guys, like Baylor guys. So it’s just another matchup. We just have to come prepared.”
As Duke conquered Hartford in North Carolina on Wednesday night, Yale held its own against a hot-shooting Lehigh team which made all six of its first six shot attempts at the John J. Lee Amphitheater. Trading points for nearly the entire contest, the Elis found themselves tied 51–51 with the Mountain Hawks at halftime after a clutch floater in the lane from guard Miye Oni ’20. Finding some separation late into the game, the Bulldogs held Lehigh to just 34 percent shooting in the second half and sent the opposition home with its third loss of the season.
After reviewing film from the Lehigh win on Wednesday night, Jones planned on watching two and a half games of Duke footage before practice Thursday afternoon, he said. Finding a way to slow down the Blue Devil offense, whose 93.3 points per game rank fifth in the country, will be key for Yale. With matchups still up in the air as of Wednesday night, the Elis will be tasked with defending one of the most dangerous starting lineups in the NCAA, headlined by Williamson, Barrett, Reddish, and also including guard Tre Jones and center Marques Bolden.
“What has to happen for us is that we have to be poised,” Jones said. “We have to try to finish the game like we did against Miami, meaning make good decisions, hit your free throws and defend. If we can do that, we’ll be successful.”
No matter the outcome, securing an opponent of Duke’s caliber benefits the program as a whole. With the game being broadcast on ESPN, basketball fans around the world will get a chance to see Yale’s prowess as a basketball team and Ivy League contender.
According to Jones, who tries to schedule a game in each player’s home state before they graduate, Yale initially faced difficulty arranging an away game in North Carolina where Phills lives. Most opposing schools hesitated to schedule a game and risk a home loss against Yale, a quality team which could threaten to hurt their tournament resume. But when Jones and his staff contacted Duke, the school seemed open to the idea. The two programs secured a date for the contest soon after.
“The visibility [this game] gives to Yale and Yale Athletics is priceless,” Director of Athletics Vicky Chun said. “We want to show the world that academic and athletic excellence is not mutually exclusive. We will also have a ton of alums attending and many watching on TV I love when we can all come together for Yale regardless of where we live.”
The matchup against the No. 3 Blue Devils tips off at Cameron Indoor Stadium at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.
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