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Duke Is Having An Identity Crisis

The Blue Devils need to develop a counterpunch for when their gameplan stalls, and quickly

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Arkansas
Duke Blue Devils guard Jeremy Roach (3) drives against Arkansas Razorbacks guard Davonte Davis (4) during the first half at Bud Walton Arena. 
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason chatter coming from Durham was almost universally music to Duke fans’ ears.

Jon Scheyer’s second Duke team would have a glut of three point shooters. A talented freshman class would make this the deepest Blue Devil squad in recent memory. Mark Mitchell had worked on his unorthodox shot. Kyle Filipowski, he of two repaired hips, would be a more mobile and athletic version of the player who already won ACC Rookie of the Year.

Yet, eight games into a young season, much of that chatter seems to have been just that, and Duke is facing an identity crisis.

This Blue Devil team was designed to use its shooting prowess and Filipowski’s ability to play outside to create cavernous driving lanes, which the team would further exploit by pushing the tempo thanks to its guard depth. But in back-to-back road losses to unranked Arkansas and Georgia Tech, Duke shot a combined 10-for-38 from deep, and opponents clogged the lane by daring Mitchell to shoot. Without the open paint they were designed to exploit, the Blue Devils shot under 39% from the field in those losses.

The book has been written on how to take Duke’s first punch.

The question is, does Duke have a counterpunch? Figuring out how to win games when the initial gameplan struggled was a hallmark of Mike Krzyzewski’s historic career, as was his ability to adjust his team’s identity mid-season. Indeed, his final two national championships were arguably spurred by such adjustments: inserting Brian Zoubek into the starting lineup late in the 2009-10 season and replacing Amile Jefferson with Matt Jones in the starting lineup in the 2014-15 season. In a very limited sample size, we don’t yet know whether his heir can do the same.

The upside is that Scheyer has plenty of tools at his disposal to make a Krzyzewski-style lineup change to invigorate his squad. He could add experience and energy to the starting lineup by replacing freshman Jared McCain with junior Jaylen Blakes; despite Blakes’ offensive deficiencies, he has a track record of being able to alter games with his defensive intensity alone, and that intensity could help break the Blue Devils’ tendency for slow starts. If Mitchell continues to struggle with his shot, Duke could exploit the plus size of sophomore Tyrese Proctor (assuming his ankle injury isn’t long term) and freshman Caleb Foster to try out some creative “four guard” lineups around Filipowski. Given captain Ryan Young’s recent struggles, that experiment could be extended to a true small ball lineup with Mitchell and the “5” for stretches, which would rest Filipowski while mitigated the effects of Mitchell’s shooting woes.

Scheyer has already tried one changeup that, unfortunately, got hit out of the park: going back to the Filipowski and Young frontcourt that was successful last season. Perhaps due to the effect of opponents having a year of tape of him in a Duke uniform, Young hasn’t been nearly as effective offensively as he was last year, which makes his defensive limitations all the more glaring. Young still has an important role on this team, but it’s likely as a 5-10 minute per game relief for Filipowski, rather than a 10-20 minute per game counterpart to him. Duke could, though, try an evolution of this strategy with freshman Sean Stewart: while still very raw offensively, Stewart’s size and athleticism make him ideally suited to guard all but the most bruising ACC bigs. That pairing would take a major responsibility of Filipowski’s plate and could even open things up offensively: Stewart may not be a threat in the post, but there’s no reason why he can’t play a Marshall Plumlee style “dunker” role that doesn’t clog up the interior.

Duke has two interesting games on its upcoming schedule to test out these and other counterpunches before facing a major test against Baylor in Madison Square Garden: while Charlotte and Hofstra are both “buy” games, they aren’t quite cupcakes, as both rank inside the Top 150 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (Hofstra, notably, is knocking on the door of the Top 100). Add in a final non-conference game against a more traditional cupcake in Queens, and that’s four December matchups for Duke to not only reforge it’s identity, but find adjustments that work when that first punch doesn’t land.

Whether the Blue Devils can find a creative solution to this identity crisis in this December stretch may very well determine whether the preseason expectations are still in reach, or if they were just more chatter.