Night Line: Duke Looks Vulnerable Heading Into ACC Play

Posted by EJacoby on January 5th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is an RTC columnist and contributor. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.

Over the past month, Duke had won five straight games and quietly risen to #3 in the AP Poll and #2 in the RPI without skipping a beat. But home victories over the likes of Western Michigan and UNC Greensboro won’t make fans forget about the Devils’ embarrassing 22-point loss at Ohio State earlier in the year, and it would take a strong road performance to erase those memories. Wednesday night showed the Blue Devils get thoroughly outplayed by unranked Temple in downtown Philadelphia, confirming the suspicion that Mike Krzyzewski’s team could be vulnerable both defensively and on the road heading into conference play. Coach K will need to refine his rotation and strengthen his team’s defensive intensity if they want to realistically compete with North Carolina for another ACC title.

Duke Had Major Trouble Defending Temple on Wednesday Night (AP/T. Mihalek)

Perhaps no team played as difficult a non-conference schedule as Duke, which would suggest that they are well prepared for their old familiar foes when conference play begins this weekend. The Blue Devils played Michigan State, Ohio State, Belmont, Michigan, Kansas, Davidson, Tennessee, and Washington as part of one of the most challenging schedules in the country. But Wednesday’s game against Temple was just their second road game (although it was played on one of Villanova’s two home courts, not Temple’s), and they were dominated in both. At Ohio State on November 29, Duke allowed the Buckeyes to shoot 60% on two-pointers and 57% on threes, amounting to a horrendous 130.8 efficiency rating for the Buckeyes. On Wednesday night, Temple shot 58% on twos and 50% on threes for a 114.7 efficiency. Considering that Missouri’s 126.5 offensive efficiency is the best in the country, it goes without saying that Duke is allowing its opponents to score way too easily in hostile environments.

While Duke’s road troubles represent only a two-game sample, its defensive failures are a sign of a bigger problem. Consider Wednesday night against Temple, in which both teams boasted a trio of impressive scoring guards. Temple came in as a strong perimeter defensive team, holding opponents to merely 25.6% from three-point range, and they continued their strong defensive effort in this game. Duke guards Seth Curry, Austin Rivers, and Andre Dawkins combined to score only 18 points on 5-19 shooting and 3-8 from deep. Meanwhile, Duke came in ranked 297th in two-point field goal defense, and they allowed the Owls to shoot 58% inside the arc, mainly on mid-range shots or short jumpers in the paint. TU’s Khalif Wyatt scored 22 points on 8-12 shooting, while fellow guard Ramone Moore added 11 points on 5-9 shooting. In a matchup that featured strong guard play, the team that locked in defensively came out with the convincing victory, as Temple never surrendered the lead after going ahead at the 13:49 mark in the first half.

Mike Krzyzewski recognized his team’s lack of defensive intensity from the start, when he began shuffling his lineups early and often to try to find a combination that would work best on the defensive end. He never found the right combo, giving 10 different players at least eight minutes of playing time. He even tried seldom-used players Michael Gbinije (9.2 MPG) and Josh Hairston (9.0 MPG) start the second half of the game, as well as Miles Plumlee, the elder brother who usually plays behind brother Mason. Dawkins saw just 14 minutes of action and gave way to more defensive-oriented guards Tyler Thornton and Quinn Cook, but they were unable to make much of an impact on the game. Nearing the midpoint of the season, it’s unclear exactly who Coach K trusts, and it’s a dilemma that his best offensive players are not his best defensive ones. A deep bench of quality contributors is surely a good problem to have, but it again leaves Duke vulnerable to some bumps and bruises in conference play as it figures out its optimal lineups.

We can probably expect Krzyzewski, the winningest head coach in Division I history, to eventually figure things out for a team that still boasts a 12-2 record and looks like a borderline top 10 squad. What is comforting for Blue Devil fans is that they are flawless against their opponents on neutral floors thus far, including a Maui Invitational championship with wins over Tennessee, Michigan, and Kansas. Duke’s resume as a whole is one of the most impressive in the country and the comfortable confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium will as always pose a massive problem to incoming opponents. But truly great teams can take their game on the road and play just as well, and that’s something that Duke currently lacks that prevents it from being considered an elite team right now. Every game in the NCAA Tournament, of course, is on a neutral floor, and we’ll need to see more from Duke outside of Cameron, especially on the defensive end, before being confident that they are a title contender.

EJacoby (198 Posts)

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2 responses to “Night Line: Duke Looks Vulnerable Heading Into ACC Play”

  1. BJ says:

    I have been wondering if, for the past few years at least, Duke’s stubborness in employing an aggressive extended man-to-man defense has contributed to games in which athletic opponents are highly efficient on the offenive end. Ohio State and Temple this year, Arizona last year and Villanova from a couple years ago come to mind. It seemed like in each of those games, the opponent shot lights out in part because Duke was playing a brand of defense not well suited to its roster and giving up tons of makeable shots. I am no defensive svengali, but Duke seems to lack the combination of defensive speed and size on the perimeter to make their system most effcient. Perhaps they are built better for a pack line or other sagging man defense so that they have better help rotations to stop these athletic opponents from lighting them up repeatedly.

  2. EJacoby says:

    Great point… Duke lacks elite-level athletes, and it’s holding them back defensively. Like you said, sometimes defensive game-planning can mask weaknesses, and maybe Coach K should give that a thought. Austin Rivers is the only elite athlete on the team, and he’s considered an offense-first player, but he still played the most minutes last night – he can defend if he works at it. Contrast with a guy like Seth Curry, who I absolutely love as a player, but there’s a reason why he was only offered a scholarship by Liberty – he simply lacks that athleticism to defend his position at a high level.

    This team doesn’t have the Lance Thomas (McDonald’s All-American) and Brian Zoubek (7-footer) who helped cover up defensive errors for the 2009 Championship team

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