It’s not surprising that Duke fans are disappointed by the team’s slow start in ACC play.
After all, Duke was the nation’s preseason No. 1 team and was undefeated until its ACC opener at Boston College. The team’s 1-2 start (now 2-2) in ACC play is going to make a run for the conference regular season title very difficult, even after Wednesday night’s win at Pitt.
On the other hand, why is anybody surprised – or dismayed?
The fact is that Coach K’s one-and-done dominated teams have consistently struggled to open ACC play. They’ve always bounced back strong.
This is nothing new.
Let’s take a look at Duke in recent years, counting backwards:
-- 2017: Another preseason No. 1 Duke team was 12-1 and ranked No. 5 nationally when ACC play began. The Blue Devils, just beginning to add injured freshmen Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden to the rotation, promptly started 2-3 in league play – although all three losses were on the road to teams that eventually made the NCAA Tournament. The first ACC loss (at Virginia Tech) came without Grayson Allen, who was suspended for the tripping incident against Elon.
The slump continued a week later with a home loss to N.C. State – a team that would finish 1-10 down the stretch. At that point, Duke was 3-4 in ACC play.
Duke then won seven straight ACC games, including road wins over ranked teams Notre Dame and Virginia, plus a homecourt win over eventual national champ UNC.
-- 2016: Duke was 11-2 and ranked No. 15 nationally when the Devils opened ACC play with wins over Boston College, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech – three bad ACC teams. But three straight ACC losses followed – homecourt losses to Syracuse and Notre Dame and a road loss at Clemson. A road loss at Miami followed a week later.
At that point, Duke was 4-4 in ACC play.
The Blue Devils then won five in a row in the league, including home wins over ranked teams from Louisville and Virginia and a road win at UNC.
-- 2015: Duke was 12-0 and No. 2 in the nation when the Devils opened ACC play with a home win over Boston College and a road win at Wake. Then the young Blue Devils promptly lost back-to-back ACC games at N.C. State and to Miami at home – neither of which would make the NCAA Tournament that year.
Coach K turned things around by temporarily going zone. Duke won 15 of its next 16 games and 21 of its last 23 games en route to the 2015 NCAA title.
But even that championship team struggled early in ACC play.
--2014: Duke was 11-2 and ranked No. 7 nationally when the Devils opened ACC play with a loss at Notre Dame (which would finish 15-17 that year). After a win at home over Georgia Tech, Duke lost at NIT-bound Clemson.
After starting 1-2, Duke won five in a row and nine of its next 10 ACC games (the only loss in that span coming to No. 1 Syracuse in overtime in the Carrier Dome).
2013 – Not a one-and-done team, although it did start freshman Rasheed Sulaimon. The team was 13-0 and No. 1 in the nation when it opened ACC play with wins over Wake Forest and Clemson.
But Ryan Kelly got hurt and Duke promptly lost road games to ranked opponents at N.C. State and Miami to fall to 3-2 in the ACC.
Duke bounced back to win six in a row and 11 of the last 13 down the stretch.
You have to go back to 2012 to find a Duke team that didn’t start slowly in ACC play. The 2012 Devils won their first four ACC games and seven of the first eight. They finished 13-3 in ACC play and only lost the regular season title to 14-2 UNC in the last game of the regular season (a loss to the Heels).
So what is going on? Why does Duke so often start slowly in ACC play?
Even Coach K is scrambling for an answer.
“We’ve have a different team each year,” he pointed out earlier this week. “That’s part of the reason – we literally have a different team each year. It’s not like ‘They’re bringing back four starters and the three guys are juniors and two seniors.’ You have a new group.
“Another part of that are the interruptions we have. We play so many games and we have a huge exam break – which we need to have. Then you might play one game and have a Christmas break. It’s almost like starting another season.
“That can be part of it, but the bottom line is that we haven’t played well enough to win.”
There’s no secret as to Duke’s biggest problem.
“We’re playing just horrible defense,” Krzyzewski said. “We understand that and we’re working on it. That’s all you can do. Hopefully we’ll show some improvement in that area.”
Coach K was hoping that his team would show improvement after the Christmas break. The Boston College loss was at the end of a long string of games when the team had little time to practice. The N.C. State loss came after the breaks for exams and Christmas, but also came after a full week of practice.
Was K disappointed that his team’s defense didn’t make a dramatic jump?
“At times it did make a jump,” he said. “It’s just about how hard and the value of each possession. It’s difficult and you have to take time. Along with practice, you have to have games too. We did have practice. It would be nice if you had practice, then you had a game, then three days later you had another game. So you can incorporate what you’re doing in a practice situation.”
Three years ago, Krzyzewski turned things around on defense by instituting a zone defense. That gave his young team (three freshmen starters) time to learn how to play man-to-man effectively – and that was the defense that carried Duke to the national title.
There are no easy fixes this year. Duke has already played a good deal of zone. But the Devils have trouble defending the 3 no matter what defense is in play. In the team’s first three ACC games, opponents had hit 48.6 percent of their 3-point attempts and surrendered an average of almost 12 3’s a game.
“We know more than anybody how poorly we’ve played on the defensive end throughout the entire game,” Krzyzewski said. “We may have had a few [good] segments, like the end of the Florida State game.”
Does K have an idea how to fix the problem?
“Part of it is the development of a little more bench strength – maybe for a couple of minutes at a time,” he said. “We can stay fresher and those kids can’t do everything, but if they can play defense, they can help us.”
Wednesday night’s victory at Pitt was a good sign – the Panthers hit just 4 of 22 3s and shot 33 percent from the field overall, scoring just 52 points.
That was a good defensive showing … but it was against the worst team in the ACC.
It could have been the start of a defensive revival, but it could have been the kind of misleading performance that Duke had just before Christmas against a bad Evansville team.
Krzyzewski sounded like he was encouraged after the game.
“Our intensity was there the whole game,” he said. “We’ve been practicing like crazy trying to get better and we were better tonight. We have to just keep working at it. They’re young kids, and we’re not deep. They have talent, but they’re really young, and they have to just keep learning these new habits. Today was a step forward.”
Duke will get a better test Saturday when Wake Forest visits Cameron. The Deacons are another second-division ACC team, but have several quality offensive weapons – and rank second in the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage.
And after Wake’s visit, Duke travels to Miami for a Monday night game with the No. 18 ranked Hurricanes.
Maybe after that game, we can revisit Duke’s defensive performance. But if recent history is any guide, we can count on the Devils starting to play much better very soon.