Duke has won its first 10 games for the sixth time in eight seasons, thanks in part to the perimeter play of senior guard DeMarcus Nelson.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has used the interior presence of freshman forward DeJuan Blair to post its fifth straight 10-0 start.
Each team puts its undefeated record on the line Thursday night when Nelson and the sixth-ranked Blue Devils square off against Blair and the No. 11 Panthers at Madison Square Garden.
Nelson is one of the leaders on a Duke offense that ranks among the nation’s best with 89.1 points per game. The senior guard is averaging 12.8 points and a career-high 6.1 rebounds while shooting a career-best 50 percent from the field.
Recently, Nelson has been particularly effective from 3-point range, where he’s 8-for-11 in his last three games after going 4-for-16 in his first seven. The Blue Devils are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation, averaging 44.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Nelson went 4-for-5 from long range on Monday as Duke cruised to a 111-70 victory over Albany. He had a season-high 23 points and the Blue Devils shot 60.3 percent from the field - their best since shooting 68.3 percent in a win over Miami last Jan. 14.
“I thought DeMarcus played very, very well, but he has been,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his team’s only senior. “He’s been our most consistent excellent player. It’s just that his thing goes below the radar because this freshman did this or this guy’s doing that. … DeMarcus has been the solid one.”
While Duke has been relying on Nelson’s outside game, the Panthers have gotten a boost from the post play of Blair, a 6-foot-7, 265-pound freshman.
Blair had 20 points, 10 rebounds, five blocked shots and two steals as Pittsburgh beat Oklahoma State 85-68 on Saturday. It was the third double-double in four games for Blair, who is averaging 14.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.8 steals in that stretch.
He will look for another strong effort against the school he hoped would recruit him out of Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School.
“They didn’t recruit me at all. That’s another reason I’m going to go hard on them,” Blair said Tuesday. “They’re an excellent program and I wish I could have been recruited by them, but they looked the other way and got who they wanted. And Pitt got who they wanted.”
This will be Pitt’s first game against a ranked opponent this season. Duke, on the other hand, has already defeated two Top 25 teams, beating then-No. 11 Marquette 77-73 on Nov. 21 and then-No. 20 Wisconsin 82-58 six days later.
These teams haven’t met since Duke’s 78-69 win at Pittsburgh on Jan. 26, 1980. That victory gave the Blue Devils a 6-5 edge in the all-time series.
The Blue Devils are 15-5 at Madison Square Garden under Krzyzewski, while the Panthers are 17-8 there since the 2000-01 season.
“I think it’s the only (college) game (on TV) that night,” Blair said. “Seven o’clock at the Garden? Duke? I can’t wait, thinking about it. It’s going to be crazy.”