Next up for Duke is an inaugural ACC trip to Louisville, and with Duke's struggles in the last two games, the perception about this one has changed markedly.
This was expected to be Duke's first attempt at winning Coach K' s 1,000th game. Now though it looks like much more of a dogfight, and Louisville will probably win by about 30. Right?
Well, that's what a lot of people are thinking. We don't expect it will go quite like that. Duke basketball is nothing if not resilient.
Does that mean that Duke will win Saturday? No, not necessarily. But we don't think that the conventional wisdom will be the way of it either.
Let's look at what's going on with Duke, starting with confidence since Coach K specifically mentioned it.
That's a tricky thing, particularly for a team which relies on freshmen so extensively. It's no surprise that what seemed easy early has gotten more difficult lately.
To an extent, that might be the easiest part of it. A few years ago, a Duke prof said something like this: Duke doesn't need a sports psychologist, because Coach K is as good as anyone really could be. He's done a tremendous job over the years motivating his team.
Offensively, Duke has built the team around Jahlil Okafor.
Lately he's started running into defenses which are specifically designed to stop him - double teams and more.
He's done a reasonably good job of getting the ball in the basket - better than reasonable really. Okafor is the real deal.
What's not happening as well is Plan B, and that complicates things.
Earlier, Okafor was getting the ball back to open shooters who were hitting the shots. We're not sure if it's Okafor not looking as much or the other guys not being in the right spots or maybe a lack of confidence again or possibly a combination of things.
Whatever it is, Duke's outside shooting is way off of what it was earlier.
That seems like something that can be tweaked or hacked though, although the fix may be psychological. But still it should be manageable.
Defense is a bigger problem.
We first noticed things were different when we realized that we weren't really noticing Justise Winslow on the floor. He was so dominant early and lately he seems far too tentative.
It's a bigger problem for Tyus Jones. During the State game we watched again and again as his man got a step on him and beat him down the lane, where chaos ensued.
Given Duke's preferred aggressiveness on defense, a lot of guys were overplaying and suddenly you have this other guy loose and someone is supposed to help.
It just opened up the inside for dunks, layups, and easy points.
And on that same vein, back on the other side of the ball, tentative passing has led to a lot of turnovers which yielded lots of bakets.
We're not blaming Jones or Winslow. They're both very young players and their growth curve is compressed since the goal these days is to get to the NBA as quickly as possible.
But those things are causing problems and it likely gets back to confidence.
So what now?
Typically, what's happened in years past is a lineup change, but we're not sure that helps or hurts a struggling player's confidence.
Louisville of course is typically designed to attack weak ballhandling and passing and then score off of turnovers. And Rick Pitino's teams have shot the three well since the shot came in. So Louisville will roll right?
Well we'll see.
Louisville's guards, though very good, don't present the same problems. For one, they're smaller than Duke's seen recently. State's guards were bigger and so was Miami's Sheldon McClinton. The bigger guards have given Duke some problems.
They're not necessarily quicker than UConn's backcourt, and Duke did okay there.
Chris Jones, who is the point guard, is just 5-10. Terry Rozier, who has had some tremendous offensive games, just 6-1.
Wayne Blackshear is 6-5; we'd think Sulaimon or Winston could do well against him.
Louisville is starting those three along with Montrezl Harrell and Chinanu Onuaku.
Harrell, a native of Tarboro, is big, strong and can really put his stamp on the game.
Harrell is averaging 15.2 ppg and 8.9 rpg, but since Louisville played Kentucky, he's hit for 9, 16, 25, 6, 9 and 11 - 12.6 points an outing.
Onuauaku, a 6-10 freshman, is averaging 3.8 ppg and 5.2 rpg.
Rozier puts up 17.4, Blackshear 12.5 and Jones 12.5.
Louisville's had a problem getting points off the bench. Shaqquan Aaron missed about half the season so far because he was ineligible and he's very capable. Beyond him though, you have few points off the bench.
Against Clemson and UNC, the bench provided four points, two in each game. Against Virginia Tech, an easy game for Louisville, Pitino emptied his bench, playing nine guys off the pine and got 17 points.
But against Kentucky, the bench had three.
Look, we have immense respect for Louisville's program and above all Pitino, who is a brilliant coach. He really is.
But if Duke is vulnerable now, so is Louisville. This team has solid starters, some of whom (Jones and Harrell) have been erratic, and minimal bench production.
Given Duke's current problems, a lot of people expect Louisville to win easily. But if Duke plays with more confidence, and hard, well matchup problems go both ways.
It's a really good test for a young team. Duke could get hammered again, or could lose a tight game, which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. And Duke could win, which would change things - again.
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