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Duke May Have Found an Identity

For better or worse, the Louisville loss is the best glimpse yet of a full strength Blue Devil squad

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Louisville
Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals player Dre Davis is defended by Duke Blue Devils forward Matthew Hurt (21) during a NCAA basketball game at the KFC Yum! Center.
Courier Journal-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2021 Duke Blue Devils. It certainly took long enough.

Duke lost another close game on Saturday, this time against Louisville. But in so doing, Blue Devil fans may have finally caught a glimpse of what this team will look like down the stretch. The question becomes whether that’s enough to make it to the NCAA Tournament in a bizarre pandemic season, let alone compete in the ACC.

There was the good: a stellar offensive performance by Matthew Hurt, shooting 9-for-13 from the field in a variety of ways and claiming the role as Duke’s primary offensive option. There were flashes of Jalen Johnson’s immense talent and ability to generate offense in isolation. There were also moments showing DJ Steward’s offensive potential, as he slashed to the rim and collected 13 points despite a poor performance shooting from deep.

There was also the bad: Johnson and Hurt continued to show poor defensive discipline, getting into foul trouble despite a 3-2 zone defense designed in part to protect the Blue Devils’ stars. Jeremy Roach’s floor was also on display, with the freshman point guard showing his youth in a scoreless performance with only two assists. And then there were the turnovers, including six from Johnson alone, showcasing that this young team still has miles to go when it comes to the mental part of the game.

There was also the inevitable tightening of the rotation: Duke started its most talented lineup (Roach, Steward, Wendell Moore, Johnson and Hurt), with veterans Jordan Goldwire and Joey Baker providing the majority of the minutes off the bench. Notably the two vets also played significant time down the stretch in place of the struggling Roach and Johnson (and then the fouled-out Hurt). The rest of the team, primarily freshmen Henry Coleman and Jaemyn Brakefield, were limited to spot minutes in the first half.

After a season disrupted by the pandemic and a key injury to Johnson, we finally have an idea of what this Duke team will look like down the stretch. It’s a team that battled against a quality Louisville team on the road (it’s worth noting that there were some fans in the building, making the road element more of a factor than has been the norm) and had numerous chances to claim this team’s best victory on the year. Instead, Duke fell to .500 in both ACC play and on the season.

For some, that may raise alarm bells, and justifiably so. But as fans fret over the Blue Devils’ path to March, the discussions can now finally be grounded in the reality of this team’s identity, rather than the hypothetical of what they might eventually become.

Rich Randomness:

  • After the Pittsburgh game, I wrote that this team was “one play away”. Perhaps no game has ever shown that better than the Louisville loss: if either of Baker or Steward’s wide-open threes fall in the final minutes, Duke fans are likely having a much different conversation today. But both shots went in and out, and thus questions about this group’s ability to close games will remain.
  • If Duke continues with the 3-2 zone as its primary defense, don’t be surprised if Coleman edges out Brakefield as the eighth man in Coach K’s traditionally tight rotation. Coleman was amongst the most active and vocal defenders in that zone in the first half, and his frame is well suited for the type of defense needed on the zone’s back line.
  • Much has been made of the foul discrepancy in the game, but to my eyes the gap was driven more by mental breakdowns by the young Blue Devils as opposed to refereeing imbalance. Hurt and Johnson in particular were prone to obvious reaches in the post, even in the zone. It’s obvious but bears stating: Duke needs its best two players to stay on the floor.
  • At 5-5, Duke obviously would not make the NCAA Tournament if it were held today, and the potential impact (or lack thereof) of Blue Devils’ abbreviated non-conference schedule has been discussed ad nausea. But it bears note that this three game stretch may perhaps have been Duke’s toughest on the current schedule (with the caveat that the pandemic and rescheduling may eventually happen). Four of Duke’s next five games will be in Cameron, with the toughest tests being a scuffling Clemson squad and the home UNC tilt. Down the stretch Duke only faces Virginia once, at home, and three of the team’s four final road games are against squads that are hardly powerhouses. If the Blue Devils are able to learn and grow from this challenging three game stretch, the remaining schedule gives them the opportunity to quickly rise in the ACC standings and, in turn, in the committee’s view.