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Against Kansas, Duke Shows It Has The Pieces To Compete

Solving the puzzle, though, may be one of Coach K’s most unique challenges to date

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Duke
Nov 5, 2019; New York, NY, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) drives to the basket against Kansas Jayhawks guard Marcus Garrett (0) during the first half at Madison Square Garden.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It was a fleeting, and largely inconsequential moment. But the morning after Duke’s season-opening victory over No. 3 Kansas, it’s stuck with me more than any highlight or number in the box score.

Early in the first half, Vernon Carey, the freshman center who was arguably the centerpiece to yet another Top 3 recruiting class by the Blue Devils, was pulled to the top of the key by his defender. That position is never comfortable for someone of Carey’s stature. But Carey kept his wits about him, and his eyes not just on his man with the ball, but on the rest of the floor. Seconds later, you could audibly hear him shout “Backdoor!” as a Jayhawk made a cut to the hoop from the wing. The Duke defense shut that play down, and the ball rotated harmlessly around the perimeter.

That type of court awareness is not something you expect from a freshman, let alone a freshman center in his collegiate game in Madison Square Garden. You also wouldn’t expect a freshman to have the assertiveness to proactively make that call, especially with more experienced and talented defenders on the floor. But Carey had the wherewithal and the confidence to do so.

That’s an encouraging sign for Duke’s prospects this year.

It’s even more important to highlight those signs after a victory that, it seems, many Blue Devil faithful haven’t been able to fully enjoy. It seems silly to even acknowledge that possibility (after all, Duke just beat the No. 3 team in the country, and a fellow blue-blood, to open their season). But nonetheless, much of the media and fan chatter has focused more on Duke’s struggles on offense rather than all the encouraging signs that those struggles may be mere growing pains, and not the norm for the season.

In fact, my biggest takeaway from the Champions Classic was that the pieces are there for Duke to compete at the national level again this season, and little things like Carey’s defensive call may be just what it takes to fit them together. It just might take a little longer than we’ve grown accustomed before they fit for a full 40 minutes each game.

Duke played nine men Tuesday night, each for at least 12 minutes. Blue Devil fans have clamored for that type of depth for years now. And while most of us doubt the playing time will be that evenly distributed by the time March rolls around, it would not surprise me if different pieces of Duke’s puzzle are emphasized each game, depending on the matchup.

Carey and fellow freshman Matthew Hurt appear locked in as the starting front court, with Carey providing an imposing physical presence and a surprisingly deft outside shot, and Hurt able to stretch defenses in a way Duke sorely lacked last season. They are a pair of complementary bigs that Duke hasn’t seen in a long while, and a stark contrast to the Jayhawks, who had three big bodies seemingly trying to fill the same role, leading to some mismatches that Carey and Hurt exploited.

But Carey and Hurt aren’t all the Blue Devils have down low. Javin DeLaurier showed he can share the court with either Carey or Hurt, play suffocating defense in bursts, and provide complementary offense. Meanwhile, Jack White showed he can slide in at the 4 and allow the Blue Devils to play small without any drop off defensively.

On the outside, we all knew that Tre Jones would be the focal point of this offense. But Jordan Goldwire showed that he can play alongside Jones in the ultimate pressure defense lineup, and spell the sophomore star for 5-10 minutes a game while keeping the ship afloat. Cassius Stanley shone in his debut, showing an ability to score in transition and attack the basket, along with an enticing touch from the outside. Alex O’Connell was similarly impressive on the wing, but provides a unique skillset with his perimeter-oriented game. Wendell Moore was the quietest of the bunch, but despite his struggles offensively his potential given his athletic prowess was clear, and there was no drop off defensively when he stepped onto the court (which should provide him enough leeway, in Coach K’s eyes, to work through his freshman struggles). And lest we forget, White is a piece that fits into multiple parts of the puzzle, easily slotting in as a traditional small forward especially given what appeared to be regained confidence in his outside shot.

None of Duke’s pieces were enough, on their own, to put Kansas away on Tuesday, despite the insanity of the Jayhawks’ 28 turnovers. That isn’t the end of the world. You’d normally expect young teams just learning to play together to be more polished defensively than offensively, especially without a clear lottery-pick talent like Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett on the team. But Tuesday night I saw nine unique pieces on Duke’s roster. When the five on the floor didn’t fit, the offensive output was discouraging. But when they did fit, the combination of defensive prowess and offensive potential should have given Blue Devil fans more reason for optimism than pessimism.

Carey showed that when he called out that backdoor cut. His leadership and confidence made sure the pieces fit on that particular defensive possession to shut down the Jayhawks. And there’s reason to believe, with Coach K at the helm, two senior leaders in the rotation, and Jones at the point, that Duke will figure out how to fit the pieces together more often than not this season.