NEW YORK — If you asked anyone in the ACC which teams they thought would meet in the conference championship game, few would pick the downtrodden Duke Blue Devils and the overlooked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
But after four days of play, both teams have reversed course and soared through their brackets to meet in the final on Saturday.
Duke, with its resurgent offense led by the electric Grayson Allen, the consistent Luke Kennard and the dynamic Jayson Tatum, will look to win its first conference title since 2011. Meanwhile, veteran-laden Notre Dame seeks its second championship since joining the ACC in 2013.
The two teams are so similar and also so very different.
Both teams feature exceptional outside shooting, a core four of reliable players and battle-tested coaches. But on the other hand, Notre Dame is led by juniors and seniors, while Duke employs a more youthful line-up. Duke is streaky while Notre Dame is steady. Duke plays fast while Notre Dame plays smart.
Notre Dame’s nucleus of Steve Vasturia, Matt Farrell, V.J. Beachum and Bonzie Colson rival Duke’s foursome of Allen, Kennard, Tatum and Amile Jefferson pretty evenly. They both shoot from the outside well and feed the paint when needed.
“The big four for both two teams — it’ll come down to those two groups and the group that has the better night will win it,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said.
Both teams average over eight 3-pointers and only allow around 68 points per game. The difference will be in the style of play. If Notre Dame can find success early in the paint, much like North Carolina did in the first half of its semifinal game against Duke on Friday, the Fighting Irish could disrupt the Blue Devils early. The problem for Notre Dame will be stopping Allen and Kennard. Allen connected on 5-of-6 threes against North Carolina, and Kennard scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half of Duke’s semifinal game.
“We’re going to have to score,” Brey said. “We’ve got to put numbers on the board. Hopefully we can slow them up a bit, but we’re going to have to be really efficient offensively.”
On the other side, Notre Dame tore up the paint with Colson scoring 18 against Florida State on Friday, and the Fighting Irish connected on 13 threes. But in the face of an insane three-point barrage, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski isn’t too afraid.
“We are who we are,” he said. “We can’t defend inside as well, but on the perimeter we have really good players. If we can be really good at defending it and shooting it, that differential can be the difference in the game.”
Duke will also be looking history square in the face against Notre Dame. No team has ever won the ACC title after playing four games in four days, and Duke’s stamina could be a key factor in the game.
“Our guys are in really good shape,” Krzyzewski said. “I was really surprised when we played North Carolina. They could have worn us down but they didn’t. We won’t see anything like this in the NCAA tournament. It’s very unusual. But we’ve gotten better [over the past three days], and that’s the main thing.”
Duke is riding high on confidence after a tumultuous year. And Kennard said the up-and-down season has actually helped the Blue Devils in the conference tournament and moving forward.
“As a group, we’ve learned, we’ve grown up because of so many different things we’ve been through this season,” he said. “So much adversity. I think we’ve grown in a sense that when we’re down in games, we want to make a charge and continue to stay poised. Stay calm. We don’t let anything affect the way we play as a group. That’s what it’s been about and we’ve really grown from that.”
But Notre Dame is just as confident. After riding under the radar throughout the year, the Fighting Irish are ready for their toughest challenge to date.
“We’re confident right now,” Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell said. “We’re flowing really well, we’re playing good defense. We’re going to have fun and do what we do.”
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