The Duke Blue Devils are one of the most historic and iconic college basketball programs of all time. Duke has five national championships to it’s credit, with the most recent one being last year. They have some of, if not the most passionate collegiate fan bases with the so-called “Cameron Crazies” who rock Cameron Indoor Stadium every night. Currently, Duke has head coach Mike Krzyzewski at the helm, and he might be the best basketball coach of all time. But Duke hasn’t looked like the team’s of old, heck, they don’t even look like the team they were last year. So what are the real problems behind Duke basketball?Looking at Duke’s win-loss record, it doesn’t seem so bad. The Blue Devils are 15-6, but what they’ve done in recent weeks in cause for concern. In their last five games, Duke has gone an uncharacteristic 1-4, with losses unranked Clemson, Notre Dame, Syracuse and 15th ranked Miami (FL.). Even more shocking, is that the Blue Devils lost two of those games at home. Currently, Duke sits at eight in the highly competitive ACC, and their conference record sits at a mediocre 4-4.
In the most recent AP Polls, Duke stood at #24. However, those ranking came in before the loss to Miami, and with no other games on tap for this week, Duke may find itself on the outside of the top 25 looking in.
But what are the big problems that have made Duke look so average recently?
First off, the loss of Amile Jefferson has really started to take its toll on this teams identity and depth. Jefferson is the senior leader on this team, but has been sidelined with a foot injury since mid-December. Before his absence, Jefferson was almost averaging a double-double through 10 games. His timetable to return is still foggy, and that does not bode well for Duke. The only reliable big man for Duke has been Marshall Plumlee, who is the last in a trio of brothers to suit up for the university. But he’s more of a high energy role player than anything.
The Blue Devils thought they had some solid backups in five star freshman Chase Jeter, and Rice transfer Sean Obi. Both have fallen way short on their expectations, and both combine to average less than 10 minutes a night, and in those minutes, playing poorly. This leaves Plumlee all by himself in the front court, surrounded by guards.
Last season, Duke ran this type of system, where now current Miami Heat small forward played a power forward role on the team. That worked fine with Jahlil Okafor being the most dominant post player in the nation last season, but Plumlee doesn’t have that kind of impact offensive that Okafor did.
The lack of a post presence inside has really forced the outside shooting to become the focal point of this roster. But Duke has no problem shooting and scoring the basketball. With sharpshooters like sophomore Grayson Allen and potential number one pick Brandon Ingram on the outside, scoring hasn’t been the problem, the problem lies on the other side of the ball.
Defensively, Duke is pretty terrible. Opponents drop in 71.2 points per game against Duke, which puts them at 169th in the country. Grayson Allen and Derryck Thornton aren’t the greatest defensive players out there, as they lack strength and lateral quickness to defend quicker players. Brandon Ingram and junior Matt Jones aren’t terrible, but aren’t exactly defensive stalwarts out there. Duke has never really had any great defensive players under Coach K, the last real great defender they have produced has been Shane Battier, who I hate with a burning passion.
Duke also ranks pretty far down in steals per game, averaging just 6.1 thefts a contest. That number is only good enough for 177th in Division I basketball. However, Duke is pretty solid inside rejecting shots, despite their small ball lineup. Duke ranks 36th in the nation with 5.14 blocks a game, with Ingram using his length and athleticism to reject 1.5 shots per contest.
In terms of rebounding, Duke is pretty lackluster there too. Ranking just 91st in the country, Duke is often overmatched on the boards, particularly on the defensive end. Duke only hauls in 25.1 defensive rebounds per game, a rank that puts them at 201st. Once again, with Plumlee being the only true big man playing reliable minutes, Duke gets eaten up inside.
Another problem for Duke has been the point guard spot. Last year, freshman Tyus Jones was the lead guard for the Blue Devils and did a fantastic job of passing and shooting from deep. Jones was clutch and decisive with the ball, which led him to with the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. He was a typical Krzyzewski point guard. After he left for the NBA, Duke was without a point guard until Derryck Thornton committed, and then reclassified to the class of 2015 to give Duke true point guard. However, Thornton hasn’t played to the best of his abilities, shooting a paltry 39% from the field. He hasn’t scored in double figures since December, against a lesser team in Long Beach State, and his turnover numbers have been up and down.
Having a true point guard goes a long way to a teams success. They make the calls on the court and are the primary ball handlers in an offense. With Thornton’s inconsistency’s and youth, Duke has had to turn to Matt Jones and Grayson Allen to do the majority of the ball handling. However, they are both natural shooting guards who are better in catch and shoot opportunities than making plays with the ball. Neither of them have the tightest handle, and can sometimes get the ball swiped away with ease. With experience comes confidence, and with Thornton getting 25 minutes a game, it shouldn’t be too big a surprise if he starts to figure it out as we get further into conference play.
It will be interesting to see how Duke does in the coming weeks. Should be wins against Georgia Tech and NC State sets up a gauntlet of games for Duke. In a stretch that lasts’ a month, Duke plays #16 Louisville (twice), #11 Virginia, talented but inconsistent Florida State and Pittsburgh teams, and, of course, the North Carolina Tarheels (twice) in what might be the best rivalry in all of college sports.
Duke’s roster has the natural talent to make an NCAA tournament run. They have a handful of holdovers from last years team that won it all, including Allen, Plumlee and Jefferson, whenever he returns. And, above all, they have Coach K. With Duke’s recent struggles, you can bet that practice hasn’t been fun for this team, but there’s no doubt they’re getting better because of the tough times. There’s two ways a team can handle adversity; either let it consume you, or fight through it. Knowing Duke’s history, I’m sure they’ll overcome it.
Cover Photo via GettyImages
Stats via NCAA.com and ESPN