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Next Up - Louisville

Are the Blue Devils ready for the Cardinals?

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Pittsburgh
Jan 19, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski (middle) talks to the Blue Devils during a time-out against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the second half at the Petersen Events Center. 
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Duke goes to Louisville Saturday in unusual circumstances: just 5-4 on the season, and deep in January no less, the Blue Devils are as close to .500 after Christmas as they’ve been since January 21st, 1995, when Duke was 9-8 after Coach Mike Krzyzewski was forced to step away from his team for health reasons.

  • Date: 1/23
  • Time: 4:00
  • Venue: Yum! Center
  • Video: ESPN

Interestingly, in that year, Duke lost to UConn early by four, beat Illinois by five and Michigan by 10 before Coach K’s doctors (and wife) shut him down.

This year?

Duke is having the same problem just about every young team is having. It’s been very difficult to develop continuity with constant disruptions, in one way or another, caused by the pandemic.

Whether it’s other teams canceling games, Duke canceling three non-conference games or Coach K having to go into quarantine, it’s been impossible to get a sense of continuity.

And for any team, especially a young team, that's really critical.

Louisville has had the same basic problem. Here’s their primary rotation:

Carlik Jones, a 6-1 grad transfer from Radford, Dre Davis, a 6-5 freshman, Samuell Williamson, a 6-7 sophomore, Jae’Lyn Withers, a 6-8 redshirt freshman from Charlotte, Quinn Slazinski, a 6-8 sophomore, JJ Traynor, a 6-8 freshman and Josh Nickelberry, a 6-4 freshman from Wendell Moore’s hometown of Concord.

Malik Williams is a senior but the big man is out with a foot injury and won’t be back soon.

Of the returnees, David Johnson played 16 mpg last season and showed great potential, especially Cameron where he shot 8-12 for 19 points, had seven assists and four rebounds, no one played a whole lot last season. He’s very talented.

Williamson got 15.3 mpg and hit 4.4 ppg. He didn’t shoot well and is hitting almost exactly the same this year at 47.3 percent overall. His three point shooting has fallen off, down to 29.2 percent compared to 33.3 percent from last year.

Slazinski only played three minutes a game last year. Nickelberry got slightly more at 3.7 but wasn’t much more productive.

Some caveats: first, statistics only tell part of the story. Players can influence a game in many ways as Justin Robinson reminded us during his Duke career. And second, just because they weren’t big factors last season doesn’t mean they can’t be this year.

And Withers of course redshirted so he got a year in the system in practice but no court time. Withers is getting 24.8 mpg and is averaging 10.5 ppg and 7.3 rpg.

Davis is getting 30.8 mpg and looks like he’ll develop into a solid contributor with 8.5 points and 3.4 boards.

Jones, who finished up at Radford last season, is probably Louisville’s most productive player. He’s getting 17.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 4.1 assists. Shockingly, he’s gone from shooting 36.4 percent on threes at Radford last season to 50 percent at Louisville this year. That’s an amazing and very unusual statistic. He’s also dangerous in the lane. Stopping him will be a key.

Of course Duke is very young too, and it shows. Duke’s most experienced players are Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker and Mike Buckmire. Patrick Tapé had three years at Columbia but he’s still new at Duke.

Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore, both critical contributors, are sophomores. Hurt has improved tremendously but is being forced to play at the post a lot and that’s a tough load for him to bear, especially defensively. Against Coppin State, Illinois, BC and Wake Forest, he had four fouls. He had three against Bellarmine, Virginia Tech and Pitt. The only games he’s had less than three?

Notre Dame and Michigan State.

Fouls aside, he has scored and rebounded well with 18.9 ppg and 8.2 rpg.

Moore had some real struggles offensively this season but he’s been ticking up lately. Against Boston College he had 25 on 8-13 and at Pitt he hit 5-10 including 3-6 on three pointers.

In between, against Wake and Virginia Tech, he combined for 3-13 but even so, he’s looking better than he was earlier in the season. And while his offense is certainly useful, he’s probably more valuable for his defense and rebounding.

And then there are the six freshmen: Mark Williams, Henry Coleman, Jaemyn Brakefield, DJ Steward, Jeremy Roach, and Jalen Johnson.

Williams and Coleman have played erratically while Brakefield has periodically been terrific. Duke’s all-freshman backcourt of Roach and Steward has been up and down, though both have shown great flashes. Roach is becoming more aggressive and shown a knack for penetration while Steward, who came to Duke with a reputation as a terrific shooter and scorer, has not been shooting well lately.

And then there’s Johnson.

He dazzled early against Coppin State with 19 points, 19 rebounds, five assists and four blocks. He was less impressive in the other early games and went out with an injury after the Illinois game before returning briefly against Virginia Tech and then turning in another stunner against Pitt.

It’s not clear if he can maintain that level of play yet but clearly his ceiling is extraordinary. If he can maintain that level, or even close to it, he’s going to really change Duke’s game a lot. He is going to draw intense defensive attention which should open up a lot of opportunities for everyone else, and his passing skills, as we saw against Pitt, will get some easy buckets.

He’s also an outstanding defender as we saw multiple times against the Panthers.

It’s late in the season for a team to find its identity. Usually Duke has a pretty good idea of who it is in late January.

Nonetheless, this is where we are. The good news? With Johnson back, win or lose at Louisville, Duke has a chance to make major advances.