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Zooming With Nolan Smith

As the Duke assistant talks about the failure at Ohio State and how to grow from it.

State Farm Champions Classic - Kentucky v Duke
 NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 09: AJ Griffin #21 of the Duke Blue Devils goes to the basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 9, 2021 in New York City.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

For the first 7.8 games of the 2021-’22 season Duke was the nation’s best college basketball team.

But that most recent seven minutes? A horror show. Up 62-51 over Ohio State with that amount of time left, Duke was outscored 20-4 down the stretch, one miserly field goal and a pair of foul shots over that span.

Lots of things have to go wrong to have that kind of meltdown.

Duke assistant coach Nolan Smith met with the media—virtually—Wednesday afternoon and didn’t hide from any of those shortcomings.

But he also didn’t ignore the obvious fact that this was a young team, losing a tough road game in November. Lessons can be learned and shortcomings can be turned into assets.

Let’s start with that offense, the one that made its final field goal with 5:19 left in the game.

“Obviously, in the second half we saw—really, the whole game—we saw a lot of things we didn’t like offensively, whether it was movement, just standing and watching each other with the ball or whether it was missed kicks. There were a lot of missed kicks, where obviously a lot of teams [opponents] going into each game are going to say ‘hey, we have to make them make shots.’ But if we make the right kicks and the shots are wide open, we have guys who should be shooting close to 40 percent on 3s. But it has to be connected shots, where it’s a team shot, not an individual shot.”

The Ohio State game was Duke’s first true road test, after five home games and two high-profile neutral-site games.

Smith suggested that his young team did not have their heads in the right place.

“Being in our first true road game, I think our guys definitely relaxed. They will say that. There was a sense of ‘okay, we’re coming off a big win.’ We handled that great because we put together a good first half. But in the second half, there was something missing. We need to be able to put a team away. But you don’t put a team away on the road by yourself. Staying connected on the road is going to be a big thing for us.”

Smith also addressed the different woes of two of Duke’s talented freshmen.

Trevor Keels is giving Duke defense, rebounding and ball-handling and is playing major minutes as a starter.

But he’s struggling with his shot. He’s 7 for 32 over his last three games, 3 for `16 on 3s.

Smith says Duke and Keels are working on solutions.

“It’s really just getting back focused and knowing now that he’s the focal point of everyone’s scouting report, up there with Paolo. With that comes a lot of expectations but also a lot of effort and hard work that you have to put in. With each game, working harder to get your shots and are you prepared for those shots when you’re moving without the ball. Just showing him that it’s a totally different ball-game than it was coming into the season. For him, it’s a different level of preparation.”

Then there’s A.J. Griffin, whose 18-point game against Lafayette has been followed by two total points in Duke’s three following games. Griffin made a two-minute cameo at Ohio State.

Duke needs more from Griffin to be the best Duke it can be.

“A.J.’s been working really hard. He just needs to stay positive and locked in on task and trusting his work. He’s had a great couple of days of practice and definitely in these next three games we’re going to look to throw him out there and use him and make sure that he just continues to gain confidence on the court. I think that’s the biggest thing for him, just to gain confidence.”

Duke essentially has a seven-player rotation right now and Mike Krzyzewski cited fatigue as one of the reasons for the late-game collapse at Ohio State. Neither Jaylen Blakes nor Bates Jones figures to expand that rotation in conference play.

But Griffin could and Smith says that could be huge.

“We would all love for it to become an eight-man rotation, definitely to limit some minutes of certain guys, to get guys some rest and not have guys playing over 35 minutes. There’s definitely minutes out there. We’re waiting on him and need him to produce.”

It’s that weird time of year, with no games, truncated practices and end-of-semester exams and papers. Smith says that the freshmen in particular are mentally tired but says Duke can still use this time to get better.

“Offensively, we’re in a good place but we know we can get in a much better place. We’re using this time to really focus on our offense, scoring together more, movement, things like that, trying to use this time wisely.”

Duke has three home games against mid-majors next week before beginning conference play on December 22. Time to build on the many good things we’ve seen so far but also an opportunity to fix the problems that showed up in Columbus.