Gardner-Webb vs Duke Preview: Blue Devils look to shake rust


Dec 3, 2013; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Jabari Parker (1) reacts after scoring against the Michigan Wolverines at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Long layoffs are never fun.

Timing gets thrown off, chemistry fades ever so slightly, and everything feels a little less mechanical than before. Sure, there are plenty of positive things that come off with extended breaks in between games, most of which have to do with concentration on schooling and recharging the battery, but from a strictly athletic standpoint, they always seem to take a game or three to recover from.

For the Duke Blue Devils, they’ll have to shake off the rust in a hurry when they host Gardner-Webb (6-5) Monday night in preparation for their date with UCLA (9-1) on Thursday.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs don’t appear to be the kind of team that is going to walk into Cameron Indoor and get stomped on right out of the gate, but this certainly has the setup of a low pressure game that will allow the Blue Devils to get back into the flow of things.

While they do sit above the .500 mark at 6-5, Gardner-Webb has played the 306th-toughest schedule in the nation so far, and nothing about them scares you in the way some mid-majors tend to. They did travel to Missouri and give the now-No. 24 Missouri Tigers a bit of a scare before fading in the second half, but nothing else on their resume really sticks out at you. Then again, Vermont wasn’t looking too good when they walked into Durham, either, and we all know what happened there.

They’re led by Naji Hibbert, a 6-foot-5, 190 lb guard that has drastically elevated his game since transferring over from Texas A&M. The senior enters the contest averaging 13.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.4 steals a contest in addition to shooting 44.0% from the field and 34.1% from the line. In high school, Hibbert was a teammate of Duke point guard Quinn Cook.

Center Tyrell Nelson is another Gardner-Webb player to keep an eye out for; the freshman has seemingly grown more comfortable over the course of the year and, as a result, continues to contribute more and more. Nelson has scored in double-digits in five of his last six contests all while providing the very type of inside presence that could give a team like Duke fits.

For Duke, they’ll turn to their dynamic duo of Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker to get it done, the same as they have in nearly every contest this year. Their last contest, a 79-69 win over Michigan, saw an improved performance from players not named Rodney Hood or Jabari Parker, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the effort carries over the long break and into the contest with Gardner-Webb.

If they must rely on Parker and Hood, however, they could do a lot worse. Parker has averaged 22.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per contest to go along with his ridiculous 30.0 PER. Hood, meanwhile, sits at 19.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per contest to go along with his also impressive 25.4 PER.

Perhaps the most intriguing question the game poses is whether sophomore guard  Rasheed Sulaimon plays, or whether or not Mike Krzyzewski even knows who the hell Rasheed Sulaimon is. His minutes have been slashed from 29.5 a year ago to just 22.5 (and falling) this year, and nearly all of his numbers are down. If Sulaimon can get everything sorted out, he could be a huge contributor to this team, and that all may or may not have started during this long break. We’ll see.

The game will be televised on ESPNU and streamed on WatchESPN at 7:00 PM ET.