It’s no mystery that this week hasn’t necessarily been the best for the Duke Blue Devils. This season, Coach K’s squad got off to a rampant start, winning their first 14 games. However, since then, they have dropped 2 straight against NC State and Miami, both in blowouts. Is Duke facing a temporary problem or a long term challenge that could see their demise come early in the NCAA Tournament? By looking at basic statistics, multiple things will have to change for Duke to turn this around.
Coach K is unarguably one of the best coaches in NCAA history. He has won 4 titles, led Duke to the tournament in 31 of 34 seasons, and is only 3 wins away from becoming the first to 1000 wins. However, there is one thing that has separated his championship teams from the others who failed to reach the promised land. In 1991 and 1992, Coach K’s first 2 title seasons, he had the likes of 6’11 Christian Laettner and PG Bobby Hurley, both traditional style basketball players who prided themselves as much on defense as they did on offense. In 2001, Duke’s third title season, players such as Jay Williams, Shane Battier, and Carlos Boozer leading a group of tough, team oriented players who shined on the defensive end. Even in 2010, Duke often relied on Brian Zoubek and Miles Plumlee, both centers who lacked offensive games but shined on defense. The common theme here is whenever Duke wins a title, a strong defense always seems to be apparent.
In recent years, and especially this year, the idea of a sturdy defense has waned away for Duke teams. Last year, stars such as Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood often turned all focus towards scoring the ball. This came back to bite them when they could not stop Mercer in the NCAA tournament, resulting in a first-round defeat. On this year’s team, a similar trend seems to have become reality. During the non-conference part of Duke’s schedule, they shined on the defensive end, rarely allowing more then 65 points. In the past 2 games, NC State and Miami have combined to score a whopping 177 points on the Blue Devils. Both games ended in blowout losses, even though the Miami game was at home for Duke. Guards Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones have recently shown they do not have the ability to stay with prolific point guards (Miami’s Angel Rodriguez). Also, when Duke turns the ball over, they rarely show ample effort to get back on defense and stop the fast break. At the end of the game, Miami consistently ran the floor, often resulting in either an easy layup or pull up three. If Duke wants to turn it around, the guards need to improve their on ball defense, and the players need to show pride in their defense all over the court.
Throughout Coach K’s tenure at Duke, they have always been a threat from the three point line. Players such as JJ Redick, Jon Scheyer, Seth Curry, and Shane Battier were all dangerous assassins from behind the arc. On this years team, the shooters are not hard to find: Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, and Tyus Jones all excel in their shooting ability. During Duke’s first 14 wins, these shooters were basically knockdown, shooting around 40% from beyond the arc. In the past 2 losses, the Blue Devils have posted horrendous numbers from three, going 7-27 against NC State and 6-21 against Miami. In both games, Duke fell behind, and felt that it was necessary to throw up contested threes, shots that are obviously not high percentage. If Duke what’s to leave their poor shooting behind, they need to take smart, in-rhythm threes that often lead big runs and blowout wins.
GET THE BALL TO JAHLIL!!!!!!
Speaking of high-percentage shots, look no further then the best player in the country, Jahlil Okafor. Okafor shoots an unbelievable 67% from the field, numbers not even Michael Jordan could have in Space Jam. Okafor is coming off his worst game of the season, shooting only 6-13 from the field against Miami; the bright side to this is that Duke was down in a hole, and he had to force up shots whenever he got the ball (which was not enough). As stated earlier, Duke resorted to chucking up long range jumpers, rather then giving the ball to the most automatic player in the country. Duke’s guards need to understand that the offense should run through the post, not the top of they key. Even when Okafor misses, his 9.5 rebounds per game proves he can grab the ball and go right back up with it. Okafor is the undisputed best player in the country, and Duke will need to utilize him more to get out of their funk.
Duke’s schedule may not be favorable in the weeks to come; they have games against Louisville, undefeated Virginia, Notre Dame, and a North Carolina team that appears to be on the rise. The remainder of the season will be no cakewalk for Duke, but massive defensive improvements, better shot selection, and getting the ball into Jahlil Okafor’s hands will all result in a successful season.