The Duke-Louisville game from January was a 70-65 loss but may seem worse in retrospect than it actually was: Duke was up 65-64 with just 1:32 left and with 0:34 on the clock, Joey Baker missed a three that could have put Duke up 68-66.
After that, Carlik Jones hit a pair of free throws and then Wendell Moore and DJ Steward both missed three point attempts and then Louisville got two more free throws for the ultimate five point margin.
A lot has changed since then.
First, Louisville went on a Covid pause 10 days later and has only played twice since then, getting just hammered by UNC in a 45 point loss and then beating Notre Dame by 12 Tuesday evening.
And Duke lost Jalen Johnson, arguably its most talented player, who by the way has now withdrawn from school. He only played eight minutes at NC State, a game Duke won easily, and since then the Blue Devils have won three straight, making a nice win streak of four.
After the Clemson game on January 30th, Johnson’s minutes went down in every game until his departure. You could make a reasonable argument that he left before his lessening playing time affected his draft potential. Speculative, but logical nonetheless.
Concurrently, Mark Williams began his rise. He played just two minutes against Virginia Tech and then Pitt on the 12th and 19th and since then has logged double-digit minutes in every game except for the win at Virginia where he played just seven.
His improvement has been dramatic and has helped to shape the team in the late stages of the season.
Williams is a natural shot blocker and intimidator. We can’t chart the analytics here, but we’re pretty sure that if you broke down the shots near the rim, the opposing teams percentages will have gone down around the basket since his minutes went up.
His emergence has had a knock-on effect too: Matthew Hurt, who had to defend against big men inside earlier, has seen his fouls go down sharply and his shooting percentage has soared.
Against UNC and its stable of big men, Hurt fouled out. Against Notre Dame and its twin towers, he had four.
Since then he’s had two against NC State, two against Wake Forest, and one against Virginia and Syracuse.
That’s not a coincidence.
Remember, too, that he fouled out against Louisville with three coming in the last 11:34 and the last with 1:50 left and Duke up one.
Between the Georgia Tech game on January 26th and the Notre Dame game on February 9th, Hurt was 5-22 from three point range. Since then he’s shot 16-24. Overall he’s gone from 25-49 in those games to 25-43. He’s gone up from 22.7 percent to 66.7 percent on threes and from 51 percent overall to 58.1 percent. As always, our math is suspect, but the point stands: he’s shooting much better since Williams emerged.
But that’s not all that’s changed.
With Williams established, Wendell Moore can exploit his versatility more. and at the same time, Duke’s freshmen guards, DJ Steward and Jeremy Roach, have greatly matured. They’ve learned to control some of the reckless/foolish plays they were making earlier in the season that cost Duke a lot.
Roach in particular has really improved. He’s become visibly more confident and is making key plays at the right time - showing great point guard instincts, in other words.
Both are learning discretion and against Syracuse, both had seven assists. Combined they had 14 assists to six turnovers.
Against Louisville, they combined for two assists and four turnovers and shot 1-6 from three point range. Roach didn’t score at all while Steward shot 4-8 and finished with 13.
Obviously that’s a major improvement. And note also that in that game, Moore had four assists while Hurt had five and Jordan Goldwire had four off the bench. That’s pretty impressive passing.
Of course there’s no guarantee that all of this means Duke will win on Saturday. Louisville is well-coached and talented. But this is also true: it’s not at all the same Duke team we saw on January 23rd.
And we’ve gotten this far barely mentioning Goldwire, who carved a place in Duke (and Louisville) history during Duke’s now-legendary comeback two seasons ago.
He plays with immense energy and is capable of shutting someone down for short or long periods. He could be a major factor.
So too could Brakefield who has also shown great energy, notably against Virginia. Can you imagine seeing this from a teammate? Can you imagine seeing it from an opponent in a close game? Because on some level, whether visibly or not, you have to match it. His reaction at the end here was quite an emotional statement.
Brakefield is still an emerging freshman, but he has already shown that he can have a huge emotional impact on a game and that’s not something to overlook or take lightly.
We’ll add more links as we find them.
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- X-Factor: Duke men’s basketball needs another well-rounded performance from Jeremy Roach against Louisville
- Q&A: What does Duke have to do to make the NCAA Tournament? Here’s what the experts are saying
- Prediction: The NCAA’s new plan will put Duke in the tournament
- One big key to Duke’s recent success? Taking care of the basketball
- Carlik Jones sets new record for Louisville basketball
- Trying to explain Louisville basketball’s road woes
- Louisville basketball running into a buzzsaw Saturday
- Q&A: Duke’s NCAA Tournament odds? We asked the experts