Entering November, most Duke fans would have jumped at the opportunity to win two of the Blue Devils’ three major non-conference tests. Entering December, that is exactly where Duke stands, even if Tuesday’s loss to Ohio State ends an objectively stellar month on a sour note.
As is often necessary after a disappointing loss, it bears reminding that this is the same Duke team today as it was yesterday morning: one that has arguably the two best top-tier wins in the country and potentially the ACC’s player of the year, freshman of the year, and defensive player of the year in three distinct individuals (Wendell Moore, Paolo Banchero, and Mark Williams respectively). It is also a team that looked in control for much of Tuesday’s contest against the Buckeyes, staking out a double digit first-half lead by taking advantage of Ohio State turnovers, some forced and others unforced, and largely containing Buckeyes star E.J. Liddell, who was held to eight first half points despite averaging more than 20 per game on the season.
But in the second half, this team’s weaknesses, namely its youth and lack of depth, came to the forefront. The game arguably turned on foul trouble from both of Duke’s centers, Williams and Theo John, impairing their ability to provide the necessary bulwark against the Buckeyes’ interior scoring. The Blue Devils’ lack of depth also manifested in the team’s energy seemingly petering out in the second half, with the short turn around (exacerbated by travel) since the Gonzaga contest likely playing a significant role. Faced with game pressure in the first true road environment for four of Duke’s five starters (lest we forget, sophomores Jeremy Roach and Williams did not face a true road test during the COVID season), the young Blue Devils faltered on offense, with too many possessions ending in forced shots or one-on-one drives.
What can easily get buried amidst the disappointment of the team’s first loss of the season, though, is that this team has the tools to address these issues on the roster, a luxury that is rare in college basketball. Not only will the Blue Devils’ young stars benefit in the long term from this road experience, but there is clear leadership on the roster (in the form of Moore and senior Joey Baker) to help navigate the team through the natural ups and downs of a long season. Meanwhile, help on the depth front could be coming in the form of AJ Griffin, the much-heralded freshman who has struggled notably in the season’s first month. But Griffin’s rust has been well documented, driven not only by the pandemic but also an injury history. Griffin has the ability to not only provide a needed scoring punch off of the bench, but at an athletic 6-foot-6, 220 lbs, Griffin could provide an additional defender (and five additional fouls) against players like Liddell and Zed Key later in the season.
Perhaps the mood amongst Duke fans appears overly dour given what else transpired last night: the clearest evidence yet of the weakness of the ACC as a whole. The conference has dropped six of eight games in the B1G/ACC Challenge, including Florida State, a recent mainstay atop the conference standings, getting dismantled by No. 2 (and likely future No. 1) Purdue. Prior to yesterday’s contest, the ACC had only one team besides Duke in the top 30 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (Virginia Tech, at No. 26). If the conference struggles in the remainder of the non-conference, resume victories may be few and far between for the Blue Devils the rest of the season, leaving the team very little room for error in pursuit of a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet, this is still the same team that beat Kentucky handily three weeks ago, and beat national title favorites Gonzaga last Friday. More importantly, it is a team that has a clear pathway to improving, not only through fully integrating Griffin into the rotation, but also from the development of the young core. The Blue Devils now have two weeks off and three more non-conference tune ups before ACC season begins, more than enough time to regain the form that made them the No. 1 team in the country.