As Duke fans collectively exhaled for the first time in months, they likely saw an abundance of positive signs after a shellacking of Clemson. Many of these were conspicuous: Duke’s balanced scoring attack, much-improved defense, and the emergence of freshman center Mark Williams as a presence off the bench.
Among those stellar performances was that of freshman Jeremy Roach, who put up 12 points on better than 50% shooting from the floor while only turning the ball over once. The performance was all the more encouraging after Roach had back-to-back scoreless performances, less than two weeks after seemingly turning the corner in a 22 point performance against Virginia Tech.
So, what fueled Roach’s resurgence against the Tigers? It may have been coming off the bench for the first time since December 8, and more importantly who he shared the backcourt with.
Roach’s two scoreless performances corresponded with Duke returning to a more traditional, two-guard starting lineup, with Roach and fellow freshman DJ Steward tasked with handling the ball alongside forwards Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, and Jalen Johnson. Prior to those games, driven in part by Johnson’s injury, Duke had started a three-guard unit with senior Jordan Goldwire alongside Roach and Steward, including in Roach’s career-best performance against Virginia Tech.
Saturday, Roach played much of the first half alongside Goldwire, with Steward resigned to the bench after picking up two early charging fouls. For the game, seven of Roach’s 11 points game when Goldwire was on the court. Having another true point guard on the floor to shoulder some of the ball-handling burden seemed to free up Roach’s offensive game, allowing him to play more to his strengths as a slasher to the basket.
Roach undoubtedly has a higher ceiling than the senior Goldwire, but that talent at the moment is very raw. But Duke fans have been spoiled by two freshmen point guards with the last name of Jones twice in the last seven years, obscuring the reality that it typically takes freshmen time to develop the court awareness necessary to play the point at the college level. Whether Roach continues to serve as a sixth man or returns to the starting lineup, continuing to provide him extended minutes alongside Goldwire might be a boon to his evolution.
- As Duke’s rotation for the stretch run has come into focus, the biggest question has become who would be the potential eighth man. Mark Williams may have answered that question with his performances in the past two games. The freshman played confidently against Clemson, finishing easy looks at the basket and even generating some of his own offense with improving post moves. Williams may not play big minutes against smaller teams, and it remains to be seen how he handles more physically imposing bigs. But when he’s on the floor and contributing, Duke presents a completely different look from its small-ball starting lineup with Hurt and Johnson as the traditional bigs. That could provide a headache for opposing coaches having to game plan for two almost antithetical looks from the Blue Devils.
- It bears repeating how balanced Duke’s attack was on Saturday: the Blue Devils’ stars, Hurt and Johnson, combined for just 22 points in what was easily Duke’s most impressive offensive output of the season. Both have shown the ability to shoulder the offensive load, but if teams can’t game plan to shut that pair down the Blue Devils’ ceiling increases significantly.
- With upsets abounding in the ACC, Duke now sits just two games out of first place in the conference, with as many as (considering potential rescheduled games) four games remaining against teams ahead of them in the standings (including one against first-place Virginia). The Blue Devil squad that beat Clemson has the look of an ACC contender, and the schedule may give them a legitimate opportunity to challenge for the regular season crown.