So where does Duke stand after eight games and four games into the ACC in this most unusual season?
Generally speaking, we’re optimists but not irrationally so. Part of the reason we’re optimistic is because Mike Krzyzewski has a long track record and understands how to build a team.
His normal methods have been challenged by the pandemic though.
In a normal year, the players arrive for summer school and individual work. They also start to bond as a group.
Exhibition season irons out some bugs and the non-conference slate, which usually features some easy games, helps Duke to sort out roles. So after you get a good game from the reigning D-II champs in the pre-season, you get a Gardner-Webb or Bellarmine and a chance to refine things. The Champions Classic and the Big Ten Challenge gives more time to see strengths and weaknesses so that when Duke heads into ACC play, roles are sorted out and Krzyzewski has some alternate plans kicking around in the back of his mind.
That didn't happen this year and Duke’s decision to cancel three December games, while understandable, pushed this team back.
And of course injuries have taken a toll too, particularly Jalen Johnson’s.
He got a couple of minutes in Blacksburg but hasn’t played otherwise since Illinois on December 8th.
And Patrick Tapé has been out with a back problem. He’s important because as promising as young Mark Williams is, he’s not quite there yet. Tapé is a 6-10, fifth-year player how is physically mature.
Johnson’s absence has hurt more though.
In his first game, he had 19 points, 19 rebounds, five assists and four blocks which is a spectacular debut. He’s capable of great things.
In his absence, Duke has relied much more on Jeremy Roach, who moved into the starting lineup after coming off the bench initially, and Jaemyn Brakefield.
Duke has used three guards - Roach, fellow freshman DJ Steward and senior Jordan Goldwire - and all have become major contributors but all are smallish.
At 6-9, Johnson is not. Moreover, he’s a superb playmaker and capable of being a powerful rebounder as well, as we saw against Coppin State.
His return should help Duke inside and his ability to find guys in traffic will really help. His return will also take pressure off of Matthew Hurt, who has played very well, and Wendell Moore, who has been erratic offensively.
Johnson will increase Duke’s flexibility immensely.
The main thing Duke needs though is just time. We’ve talked for years now about how the one-and-done players have affected the game. If you can get them, you should. Who would pass on Zion Williamson or Marvin Bagley?
But it’s a double-edged sword.
Look at the Top Twenty Five right now and what do you see? Gonzaga, Baylor, Iowa, Creighton, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Houston, Texas Tech, Mizzou, Saint Louis are all ranked. Not ranked but getting votes are Colorado, Drake, San Diego State, Boise State, Northwestern and Belmont.
Very few of those teams have guys who will leave early for the draft. What they do have are plenty of older players who can teach younger players the ropes.
Experience, in other words, can in many cases trump superior talent.
For Duke right now, a lack of experience, combined with reduced games and communication (long a program strength, Duke’s communication is limited by daily by Covid and during games by social distancing and masks) has really slowed this team’s progress down.
With a week between games, Duke has a chance to work on things and also to get Johnson back up to speed.
Good thing: Duke has back-to-back road trips to Pitt and Louisville and two more defensively minded teams after that in Georgia Tech and Clemson.
After the Virginia Tech game, Coach K said that playing hard for 40 minutes was this inexperienced team’s challenge. We’ll see what they do after a week of concentrated work.