Article by @RandyDunson: What is Next for Duke – Will They Fold or Will They Hold?

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[Writers Note: This article was written prior to the Georgia Tech game and the Mike Krzyzewski illness but production delays prevented its release. There have been a few minor updates since, but In the big picture, the outcome of the Tech game or the coach’s interest has little to do with the majority of the content this article.]

This is the second of two articles. The first covered parity across the board in the NCAA, not just supposed down years for some teams.

6940841_bryant-vs-duke-live-stream-how-to-watch_11d3b775_mThis article covers numerous scenarios that the Duke team faces now and how they might right the ship and get back to playing true team basketball when facing adversity. Please understand that some of my comments may offend, sound flippant, etc. to some fans but my goal is to tell the truth as I see it. Therefore, there will be points raised where certain fans will just have to agree to disagree. I am a Duke fan forever but I can still express my opinion, whether it be positive or negative of the team or coach.

 

What is Next for Duke – Will They Fold or Will They Hold?

In need of a winning streak and after eight days of much needed rest, Duke will now play two unranked foes in Georgia Tech (road) and North Carolina State (home) after the Miami basting. However, the Blue Devils will then face a brutal four-game swing against No. 19 Louisville, No. 9 Virginia, No. 2 North Carolina, and Louisville again.

Krzyzewski’s squad will be more formidable when Jefferson returns, but I will be shocked if that occurs before the NCAAs. The next stretch is daunting at least for even the best teams in the nation. Expect more losses for the defending champions before March, which will likely affect their NCAA tournament prospects on Selection Sunday; however, I will not speculate on this, as it is premature.

 

Miami Postgame Reaction

kKrzyzewski put things in perspective following the loss, per Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press: “I’m glad the (Miami) students were yelling overrated. I didn’t know we were rated. So thank you.” There’s a lot of truth in Coach K’s joke. This team is extraordinarily limited. Having Jefferson back will help, but only so much. There is no way that I am going to address seeding given the number of games left to play and league, as well as overall, parity. It is my opinion that this team was overrated from the get go. Fans feed on polls and unfortunately many simply put too much faith in the rankings based on the chatter seen on social media. This said, to date, Duke has not had any bad losses (worst loss: Clemson, 58th in KenPom.com rankings), but it does not have any great wins either (best win: Indiana, 20th in KenPom.com rankings). I will give the Blue Devils a shot to make the Sweet 16, but I would not bet on it.

Coach K also addressed why he elected to play zone defense and said it was to “limit fouls and help compensate for tired”. Huh? Why was this sound bite from a reporter made to sound like Duke had played no zone in games prior to this game? The truth is that Duke has used different variants of the zone throughout the year, particularly in a ‘rescue’ or panic situations. To prove it, one could painstakingly read each play-by-play transcript for each game. The fact is that now the zone has become the primary defense with man-to-man only when appropriate.

Last year, Duke defied the odds and won a fifth national championship with eight scholarship players and a lone senior leader. Wait a minute, just a few months later, the Blue Devils find themselves with eight scholarship players again, but the bench is much shorter. Still, they are in the thick of conference play. And so a familiar question arises, If eight was enough, sometimes barely, can six possibly suffice?

The answer thus far has been a resounding no. Duke has dropped four of its last five games, three of which were suffered at the hands of unranked opponents. The fourth came Monday on the road against then No. 15 Miami, by an 11-point margin. If the Blue Devils were sporting a six-man rotation full of experienced players, maybe then they could pull off the seemingly impossible feat, but with three freshmen playing significant minutes, depth becomes an essential facet of a winning team.

That said, many might not realize that in the past several years, the NCAA has allowed a Division I school to hand out 13 scholarships. Most schools will use their total allotment as there are just that many very talented high school basketball players out there that are worthy of a scholarship. This begs the question then, why does not Coach K use all 13. That is a mystery that may never be solved.

“We’re going to get three guys on 10-day contracts, have try-outs for our student body…. No, we’re just going to try get better,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski quipped. “We’ve got six guys. Our effort was as good as theirs. We’re just not as good as they are. We weren’t out-competed against or anything like that. I’m proud of our guys.”

Depth figured to be a pressing concern heading into the Monday matchup against the veteran Hurricanes, who boasted nine players who played more than 10 minutes per game. And yet, just by examining the postgame box score, the Blue Devils matched Miami in several key areas. Duke out-rebounded the Hurricanes 37-33, scored 11 second-chance points to Miami’s 12, and shot 6-of-20 from beyond the arc compared to the Hurricanes’ 7-of-20 clip.

On paper, the Blue Devils held their own, yet they suffered their most lopsided defeat of the season.

grayson-allen-nbaMiami’s veteran savvy was on full display on that Monday, and with a deep bench for head coach Jim Larrañaga to turn to, the Hurricanes were able to push the Blue Devils around and wear them down. Duke struggled to get any production from its bench, the first basket by a Blue Devil reserve came on a Derryck Thornton layup halfway through the second half, while Miami received a 15-point boost from sophomore Ja’Quan Newton.

The Duke offense wasn’t able to get it going for most of this game, which was to be expected coming off a win in a tough environment on Saturday at NC State and travelling to Miami, FL for a Monday night contest. The team shot 25-60 from the field including 6-20 from three. They also struggled to stop an improved Miami team, who Coach K regards as one of the best teams in the country that made over 50% of their shots. Grayson Allen and Matt Jones joined Ingram in double-figures with 17 and 10 points respectively.

Another takeaway for the Blue Devils from this game was ball movement. Duke registered only 8 assists while committing 11 turnovers while the Hurricanes committed only 7 turnovers and totaled 24 assists led by guard Angel Rodriguez who finished with a double-double of 13 points and 11 assists. Nobody had more than two assists for Duke.

One positive from this game is that Duke did out-rebound Miami 37-33, even though Miami had the advantage in size. Duke Basketball will have the rest of the week off before heading to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech next Tuesday for their third straight conference road game.

Ideally, by now Duke would have found a way to have others account for Jefferson’s absence, but it’s been too tired to do so and has had to conserve most of its energy for offensive execution.

How Fatigue Has Affected Duke’s ACC Performance in 2015-16
Days Off Between Games (Record) Field-Goal Pct. Points Per Game
1 Day (0-2) 39.3 (48-of-122) 65.5
2 Days (2-1) 51.2 (83-of-162) 84.7
3+ Days (2-1) 51.8 (87-of-168) 80.7

 

Fatigue issues have understandably popped up since Jefferson got hurt, and they have stood out most when the Blue Devils are playing on short rest. Since ACC play began, Duke’s two worst shooting performances came with only one day off between games, and its efficiency increases more the longer it has to rest. The Blue Devils’ starters are all very good, probably better than the starting five of almost every remaining ACC foe. The difference is Duke doesn’t have anything beyond its starters, and thus it runs the risk of wearing down. Being able to stay fresh, more than the quality of the opponent, will dictate how the Blue Devils navigate the rest of their games. They have two more short breaks (February 6-8 and February 28-March 1) and two more stretches with two days between games (February 17-20 and February 25-28). The rest of their breaks are three or more days in length.

Hopefully, this analysis and takeaways from the Miami loss have laid firm groundwork for my view of how the team will fare through the remainder of the season along with a few key points to support the latter.

 

My Viewpoint Going Forward

I’ve finally come up with a solution to Duke’s big-time issues on the basketball court after this week’s loss to Miami, a loss that gave the Blue Devils their worst conference start since the 1995-96 season and one that has knocked them out of the AP Poll for the first time since 2007.

I feel that the solution is time.

And I’m not talking the time that it takes for injured senior big man Amile Jefferson to get back on the court to fix a barely existent interior defense that’s led to the team being [ranked 167th (raw), 130th (adjusted)  in the country] in defensive efficiency. That’s Duke’s worst defensive efficiency ranking since KenPom.com began tracking the stat during the 2001-02 season. Jefferson’s expected return sometime in late February or early March from his fractured foot is what most people expect to be the magic bullet, but I’m not sold on that.

I’m also not talking the time it takes for freshmen like Brandon Ingram, Derryck Thornton, and Luke Kennard to develop and have the college game slow down for them. Ingram is already there; he’s averaging 17.1 points, seventh among freshmen nationally. Thornton is an inconsistent but talented point guard, and Kennard is an inconsistent but elite shooter; it’ll come for both of them.

I’m not even talking the time it takes for a team that’s among the nation’s youngest to finally gel as a unit. Remember a year ago when Duke fans had a collective freak-out about that team’s struggling defense after two straight losses, and Duke ended up winning the national title. That team figured it out.

The sort of time I’m talking about needed to fix things at Duke is roughly nine more months, when the 2016-17 season begins and a stunning new group of recruits joins whomever from this year’s team decides to stick around for another season.

That’s right, it’s only early February, and I’m throwing in the towel, in a sense, on this Duke season.

This is not to suggest that this team will roll over and die. Coach K and his assistants would never allow that to even enter into their minds. And even though it’s been floated by college basketball names as respected as CBS’ Seth Davis that it’s time to consider that Duke could actually miss the NCAA tournament altogether, I don’t see that happening.

What I do see happening is something along the lines of that 1995-96 season, where Duke had the same 4-4 start to ACC play. That team struggled throughout the regular season, made the NCAA tournament as an eight-seed and lost to Eastern Michigan in the first round.

And yet I don’t feel bad for Duke, and you shouldn’t, either. That’s because it was only nine months ago when this team was cutting down the nets in Indianapolis for Coach K’s fifth national title, an achievement that I believe, given the context of how competitive today’s landscape has become, vaulted Coach K above John Wooden as the greatest college coach of all time.

More to the point, look to my solution: time. And a lot of it. When you look at what Duke has coming for its 2016-17 season, you should probably already put the Blue Devils at No. 1 on your way-too-early preseason poll for next year, or at the very least, No. 2 behind an equally stacked Kentucky.

Let’s break next year’s team down really quick. Ingram ought to be the second overall pick behind Ben Simmons in next season’s NBA Draft; there’s no way he’ll come back. They’ll lose two seniors, Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee, too.

But I don’t think sophomore guard Grayson Allen, Duke’s best player this season who was considered a national player of the year candidate before the recent struggles, should head to the NBA after this season. Neither do many NBA draft experts. Sure, he’s very talented & athletic, but he needs another year at the college level to fully develop. We will just presume that he does come back and be even better.

Freshmen like Kennard, Thornton and little-used big man Chase Jeter, a talented around-the-rim power forward who projects as an NBA player if he continues to develop, will only get better. And, let us not forget Sean Obi who should definitely be a go-to bench player even with the heralded bigs coming in. I do not think that he will transfer again, though he could easily do so & get ample playing time. I just do not see him as NBA material, so stay and get a quality education and get as much PT as possible.

And then here’s the big part: that 2016 recruiting class. Oh, my.

recruitingOne thing is for certain: Krzyzewski will have Duke back on top next season. Coach K will have either the best recruiting class in the country (or the second best behind Kentucky). PF Harry Giles will be coming off his second torn ACL, but let me put into perspective the absurdity of his talent: When I was able to see him play this summer for the Team USA U-19 team (limited TV coverage), a respected talent evaluator told was heard to say that if you could draft a kid who just completed his junior year of high school, he would have taken Giles at No. 1 in 2015 over Karl-Anthony Towns. And if NBA teams are wary of Giles’ injury issues, then Duke commit SF Jayson Tatum, the best pure scorer in the country with a silky-smooth game, will become the odds-on No. 1 overall pick. Frank Jackson, a gifted two-guard who can really score, is also on the way. And, let us not forget PF Javin DeLaurier.

Still uncommitted at the time of this writing are the likes of SF Josh Jackson, C Marques Bolden, C Iran Bennett, and a couple of other prospects that are flying under the radar.

These guys were stacked last season, with three freshmen starters, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, going in the first round. Duke will be even more stacked, and certainly much deeper, next season. The future is incredibly bright in Durham.

But this year? As noted above, even Coach K seems to admit this team’s limitations.

As noted above, “They’re better than us,” he told reporters after Duke’s loss at Miami. “We’re limited. I’m glad that the students were yelling ‘overrated.’ Man, I didn’t know we were rated.” There’s a lot of truth in Coach K’s joke. This team is extraordinarily limited. Having Jefferson back will help, but only so much.

There’s another blueblood that’s had some struggles this season, and that’s Kentucky. I’m not nearly as concerned about 16-4 Kentucky as I am about 15-6 Duke. Kentucky’s issues seem fixable by March; Duke’s do not.

So again, throw in that towel, sort of, Duke fans.

And yet keep the faith. Because even though this season seems a lost cause by Duke standards, next season could bring Coach K another net to cut down in April.

No one is counting Duke out completely yet. Jefferson is out of a walking boot and could return before the ACC Tournament. If that happens, Ingram can slide back to the three, Duke’s depth will suddenly improve (to unknown degree) and the defense may finally get its act together.

Duke currently has the No. 2 offense in the country, so it’s not like they’re totally broken. It’s worth pointing out some bozo wrote the exact same column about Duke’s shaky defense each of the last two years around this point in the season. The first time the Blue Devils lost to Mercer in the round of 64; the next year they won the national championship. Given the variance of a single-elimination playoff, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will happen this time around.

After losing four starters from a national title team, Duke tried to reload, not rebuild. Even for arguably the best recruiter in the country, it just isn’t always feasible.

Keys to Success

So, to end this article, let us take a look at several key points that will possibly tell us what Duke needs to do to salvage the season and make it successful.

  • Not all one-and-dones are created equal
    • Brandon Ingram has been on a tear lately, blossoming into Coach K’s newest devastating freshman forward, but his current shortcomings are also a reason Duke is struggling.
    • The Blue Devils took off last season when they made a switch at the four, sliding Justise Winslow in for Jefferson and getting Matt Jones’ shooting on the floor. That lineup thrived and led Duke to the national championship for more than one reason, but don’t discount Winslow’s ability to effectively defend fours. Duke’s defense was shaky before the move and ended up finishing No. 12 in defensive efficiency.
    • It’s hard to blame Ingram for an inability to defend and rebound out of the four when he’s a natural small forward, when he’s killing it offensively and when he’s one of the youngest freshmen in the class. But it is another reminder that just because you land a superstar recruit like Ingram doesn’t mean he’s going to immediately solve all of a team’s problems.

 

  • Not every five-star recruit can help right away
    • Duke has major depth issues right now, often playing a paper-thin six-man rotation since Jefferson’s injury. Part of that is because Coach K just doesn’t trust big man Chase Jeter right now, one of the three McDonald’s All-Americans he brought in this season.
    • Jeter, who didn’t turn 18 until September 19, is even younger than Ingram. He should still be an effective big man down the line. But if anyone in Durham really thought Jeter would be able to replace the departed Jahlil Okafor this season, they are quickly learning that was an unrealistic expectation.
    • Point guard has been another problem area for Duke. It’s likely Coach K didn’t think Tyus Jones would be a one-and-done before he powered the Blue Devils’ run to the national title last April. When Jones decided to turn pro, Duke was stuck without a point guard on the roster. Krzyzewski went out and convinced Derryck Thornton to reclassify and become immediately eligible, but Thornton has been a mixed bag so far. That’s not a big surprise for a player who thought he would be a high school senior this season, not a college freshman.
    • Duke’s 2014 recruiting class of Jones, Winslow, Okafor and Grayson Allen might go down as college basketball’s greatest ever. They were the exception, not the rule.

 

  • This might be a holdover season for Duke
    • Duke ended last season with confetti falling from the sky because its four freshmen combined to score 60 of the team’s 68 points in the national championship game. Duke used that triumph to lay the groundwork for its next great recruiting class, the one headlined by super friends Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum that arrives for the 2016-17 season.
    • The thing about relying on one-and-dones is you can’t ever take a year off. Krzyzewski did everything he could to keep it rolling, but the problem is that the talent level in the national recruiting class of 2015 just wasn’t as good as it is most years. Ingram is amazing. Luke Kennard is a keeper. Jeter will get there eventually. But even when you nail recruiting, you’re not going to get Jones-Winslow-Okafor or Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson every year.

 

  • Amile Jefferson’s Return
    • This one is easier said than done, since it will come down to how quickly senior forward Amile Jefferson is able to heal and recover from the foot injury that’s kept him out since mid-December. There’s no firm estimate on when he’ll be able to play again, as he’s yet to even set foot on a court to begin getting back into shape.
    • Jefferson was Duke’s top rebounder, at 10.3 per game, and was shooting 68.3 percent with 11.4 points per game before his injury. His absence has forced the Blue Devils to move Brandon Ingram to the four, and while he has developed into their best player, he is not as adept of a rebounder or interior defender as Jefferson was.
    • His return should provide a huge boost both statistically and in team confidence, though, Duke cannot just wait around for that to happen.

 

  • Rest Whenever Possible
    • As long as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski insists on sticking to a six-man rotation, fatigue is going to be a concern. All six main players are averaging at least 25 minutes per game, and in ACC play, that has risen 30-plus for every starter.
    • That means the Blue Devils have to take advantage of any available chance to rest, whether that be by lessening the intensity of practices during shorter between-game breaks or identifying ways to exert less energy at moments on the court.
    • Duke will have three days off between Tuesday’s trip to Georgia Tech and its next game, at home Saturday against North Carolina State. But then it will play Louisville roughly 51 hours after the NC State game ends. That’s one of two short turnarounds left during the regular season, and in January, Duke had two of its worst offensive performances when only getting one day off between games.

 

  • Avoid Foul Trouble
    • The short rotation also means Duke’s players have to do whatever they can to stay on the court, which means finding a way to defend without fouling while also maintaining an aggressive offensive approach.
    • The Blue Devils have turned to both a 2-3 zone and 1-3-1 zone to lessen the chance of fouling, but that’s also translated into better scoring opportunities for opponents.
    • Duke’s players are still learning the zone, which is getting implemented between games. The man-to-man defense is Mike Krzyzewski’s bread and butter, but it’s not doable all the time because of the risk of whistles.
    • Since Amile Jefferson has been out, seven of the Blue Devils’ 10th-worst defensive games (based on defensive rating) have been recorded.
    • Some defensive aggressiveness is possible, but only if Derryck Thornton is going to be given as many minutes as the rest of Duke’s guards and if Chase Jeter and Sean Obi gets used in the frontcourt. Jeter and Obi only seem to get in games when there’s a stoppage in play within a minute of a media timeout, allowing Marshall Plumlee or Brandon Ingram to get a brief rest

 

  • Get to the Free Throw Line
    • The defensive adjustments Duke has made to handle fatigue and foul trouble should allow for it to save the rest of its energy on offense, but that hasn’t been the case. The Blue Devils have looked stagnant at times on that side of the ball, mired in a funk when having to get into a half-court set.
    • This has resulted in them getting to the line far less often than earlier in the season. The Blue Devils average 25.2 free-throw attempts per game for the season, though, in ACC play they’re getting 20.6 foul shots per contest. In three of their last four games, they’ve had 18 or fewer attempts, including seven at Clemson and eight against Syracuse.
    • For the year, Duke averages 0.415 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, which ranks 67th out of 351 Division I teams. Duke has to get back to that old level of aggressiveness, while at the same time not getting reckless and picking up offensive fouls.

 

  • Move the Ball – Better Passing
    • Duke’s 80-69 loss to Miami last week reversed a recent trend that had seen it sharing the ball better, which had led to more than half of its field goals coming off assists in five straight games and seven of eight. It’s still near the bottom nationally in assist percentage, at 46.9, after assisting on just 8-of-25 makes last time out.
    • Four of Duke’s six main players are dishing out at least two assists per game in ACC play, with Grayson Allen at a team-best 4.0 in the league and 3.7 for the season.

Because there’s no definitive point guard, every one of the Blue Devils’ guards has to be involved in running the offense and creating for others.