After dropping back-to-back games for the first time this season, Duke got back on track with an 80-69 victory over Georgia Tech Sunday evening in Atlanta. The Blue Devils jeopardized their chances of a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament with a loss to a St. John’s team with a losing record. But Mike Krzyzewski’s club remains in third place in the ACC standings, still in striking distance of first place Virginia. What is it going to take for this Blue Devil squad to get over the hump and still be playing in late March and early April?
Despite ranking second nationally in adjusted offense in the KenPom.com national rankings through 25 games, the Blue Devils ranked 79th in adjusted defense. Though they lead in the ACC in scoring (88.8 ppg), Duke ranks ninth in the league, behind even cellar-dwellar Pittsburgh, in allowing 72.6 points per outing.
The numbers are a little mystifying as to why teams are having so much success against Duke’s defense. The Blue Devils are one of the league’s better rebounding teams, so opponents aren’t getting a ton of second-chance opportunities. Although opponents are shooting just over 40 percent on average against the Duke resistance, they’re shooting a healthy 34 percent from 3-point range.
The Blue Devils have to do a better job limiting opposing dribble penetration. Opposing point guards are not only driving and dishing to open guards along the perimeter, but they’re driving and going straight to the rim. Against UNC, Duke allowed the Tar Heels to shoot 3-pointers like crazy early on. But then the Tar Heels made an adjustment in the second half, as Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, and other UNC guards began penetrating with great efficiency. Duke’s young defenders have to learn how to better react to such adjustments by opposing offenses.
Free Throw Shooting
Through 25 games, Duke ranks a dismal 12th in the ACC in free throw shooting, as the Blue Devils are converting just 69.6 percent of their chances from the stripe. By contrast, Duke’s opponents are shooting better than 74 percent from the line. Gary Trent and Grayson Allen are two of the league more reliable free throw shooters, each making over 84 percent of their attempts so far this season. But Wendell Carter is shooting just over 70 percent at the stripe, and the team’s other top contributors, including Marvin Bagley, Trevon Duval, and Marques Bolden, are all shooting under 63 percent.
Duke’s three recent losses to Virginia, St. John’s, and North Carolina were by a combined ten points. If the Blue Devils can improve at the free throw line, making even one or two more attempts per game, it can make a critical difference in those close contests that are bound to come in March.
With averages of better than 21 points and 11 rebounds per outing, Marvin Bagley is well on his way to ACC Rookie of the Year honors. He also makes a strong case for ACC Player of the Year. But for Duke to maximize its chances of cutting down nets in March and April, the Blue Devils need Bagley’s talented sidekick, Wendell Carter, Jr., to play the way he did against Georgia Tech.
With Bagley out of the lineup against the Yellow Jackets, Carter stepped up to produce 19 points and 10 rebounds. It was Carter’s sixth double-double in nine games, and his 15th straight game scoring at least 10 points. When Bagley and Carter are both at the top of their game, Duke has an almost unbeatable combination in the post. But as the Blue Devils proved against Georgia Tech, they can also win with Carter carrying much of the load.
Duke’s young unit has been given a gut check with its three-loss midseason slump. But if the Blue Devils can learn and grow from it, while improving their defense and free throw shooting, they should be right there in position to compete for another national championship.