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Duke Remains a Team “One Play Away”

Even in a loss, Duke showed flashes of the team it could be in March.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Pittsburgh
Jan 19, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers guard Au’diese Toney (5) and Duke Blue Devils forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) dive for a loose ball during the second half at the Petersen Events Center. 
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this season, I wrote that Duke’s loss to Michigan State turned on one play: Jalen Johnson committing his second foul with nearly 10 minutes to go in the first half following an impressive Blue Devil start. Last week against Virginia Tech, Duke was arguably once again one play away from putting real pressure on the Hokies, with multiple good looks from three that could have created a one possession game going begging. That was again the case last night in the Blue Devils’ six point loss to Pittsburgh.

The obvious culprit was Jeremy Roach’s missed layup with 2:16 to go, which not only would’ve cut the Panthers’ lead to one but also directly led to Johnson fouling out of the contest. But even without Johnson, Duke cut the lead to two twice more, only to give up a bucket on the defensive end. Add in the Blue Devils’ incredibly cold shooting night from beyond the arc, including a combined 4-for-12 performance from the team’s best deep shooters in Matthew Hurt and DJ Steward, and you’re left with a multitude of opportunities a young Duke team was unable to exploit.

Now, there are no such thing as moral victories, especially in a program with as illustrious a history as Duke’s, and for the “glass half empty” crowd those missed opportunities likely serve as evidence that this team doesn’t have the “it” factor necessary to succeed. But the Blue Devils’ also showed flashes of the more complete team it could be come March in the loss.

Johnson’s performance is the obvious highlight. While his stats speak for themselves, perhaps more encouraging was his impact on the defensive end: Johnson singlehandedly rectified multiple defensive miscues with his athleticism and ability to defend the rim, a quality that this team has sorely missed in his absence.

Johnson’s presence also appeared to open up offensive opportunities for Wendell Moore, who had 15 points on, perhaps most importantly, 50% shooting from the field. On multiple occasions Johnson and Moore played an isolated two-man game from the wing, with the pair’s versatility meaning that a pick-and-roll switch could yield an exploitable mismatch for either player: a slower big sometimes switched onto Moore, or a smaller wing player onto Johnson. Few teams will be able to put two players with Moore and Johnson’s combination of size and speed on the court at the same time, providing opportunities for Coach K to exploit with a more pro-style attack.

Until one of Duke’s talented youngsters claims a leadership role, the Blue Devils might continue to struggle in games where that “one play” is needed to claim victory. But Duke also showed that they’re a different team with a healthy Johnson in the lineup, one with a much higher ceiling than the squad’s two game slide might indicate.

Rich Randomness:

  • Even with Johnson’s return, Duke struggled to find a tertiary scoring option in this contest with Hurt struggling. Hurt, Steward and Roach combined for 12-for-34 shooting, with none of them able to consistently take pressure off of Johnson and a resurgent Moore. With the team adapting to Johnson’s return over the next stretch of games, whether a top-three of Hurt, Moore, and Johnson can fully emerge, with Roach and Steward providing more complimentary scoring, will be a key storyline.
  • Jordan Goldwire was a non-factor in the game seeing only nine minutes of action, an indication that his playing time may be the primary casualty of Johnson’s return. But interestingly, Duke showed more of a willingness to implement their full-court pressure throughout the game, often with success. With that in mind, I’d love to see Duke combine these two data points and use Goldwire in spurts as a defensive disruptor: play him in five minute bursts with the full-court press, and task him solely with generating turnovers. Not only would that be the best use of the senior’s talents, but it would provide a challenge for opposing coaches game plans.
  • The loss of Joey Baker’s shot, and more importantly his confidence, remains a mystery approaching a Jack White-esque level of concern. But it’s clear Coach K has confidence with him on the defensive end, and Baker indeed appeared to be one of the most vocal Blue Devils in their new 3-2 zone. His performance remains a subplot worth following.
  • Patrick Tapé provided valuable minutes off the bench, and seems to have supplanted freshman Mark Williams as the traditional center most likely to see extended minutes. While he might never be an offensive force, his experience was a plus defensively and he showed a knack to be in the right place on the offensive glass. In certain matchups (say, against big teams like Florida State and North Carolina) he could be a key contributor.