Three weeks ago, Duke was on top of the basketball world.
Fresh off their 41-point steamrolling of Maryland, the Blue Devils were 18-1, undefeated in ACC play, and sitting atop both polls.
But, as they say, all good things must come to an end.
Two of Duke's next three games were on the road against top-ten teams in Wake Forest and Clemson. After a heartbreaking loss to Wake, followed by a relatively easy home victory over Virginia, the Devils were humiliated by Clemson.
Duke's next game was against a Miami team with only four conference wins, but they were coming off of a 27-point beating of Wake Forest, and were playing very confidently.
What shouldn't have been a very challenging game almost turned into a rout, but a second-half comeback by the Devils ended up as an overtime victory.
Up next was a home date with arch-rival, and top-five ranked, North Carolina.
This was a game the Devils appeared to have control of at the half, but Ty Lawson and the Tar Heels dominated the second, and left Cameron with a 14-point victory.
In their most recent engagement, Duke travelled to Chestnut Hill to take on Boston College, a team that hadn't defeated the Devils in 24 years.
And despite having another halftime lead, the Devils fell short in the second, losing to BC by six.
The recent rough patch Duke has hit has caused many Duke fans, as well as critics, to wonder if Duke is going to falter in the late stretches this season, much as it has in the last two seasons. If we examine recent events, it becomes clear that there are several reasons why this is a distinct possibility.
Personnel Issues - Post
It has been well documented that Duke lacks a true post presence. Duke's biggest player, Brian Zoubek, has been hampered quite a bit in his career by injuries, and may never become the player that Coach K envisioned when he signed the big man from New Jersey.
Duke's other main low-post presence is Lance Thomas. Listed at 6'8" and 220 pounds, it is clear that Thomas is not a true low-post player. Both his size and skill set would indicate that he is more of a wing or high-post player.
Duke's other low-post option is freshman Miles Plumlee. Plumlee is listed at 6'10" and 230 pounds, and is more athletic and mobile than Zoubek, while possessing more size and strength than Thomas. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Plumlee will play a large role in the remainder of this season, as he is only averaging 5.9 minutes per game.
All of this means that the bulk of the offensive threat Duke is able to rely on in the paint comes in the form of 6'8" sophomore Kyle Singler, who is capable of playing in the post but seems to prefer playing on the perimeter. Singler has shown himself to be a reliable scorer on the blocks, but at 235 pounds, he is often overpowered by the opposition he faces, and is unable to secure good offensive positioning in the paint.
What all of this means is that Duke's opponents simply do not have to concern themselves overmuch with Duke's post players. There is no single player on Duke's roster who demands a double-team when they receive the ball in the paint, and as a result, opposing wings and guards are able to stay at home on their assignments, which helps to eliminate kicks to open shooters or back-door cuts.
Until Duke has a player capable of demanding respect in the paint, be it a recruit, or a current player stepping up his production, opposing teams will continue to be able to key on stopping Duke's perimeter play, greatly impacting Duke's ability to play efficient offense.
Personnel Issues - Point Guard
Duke's personnel issues are not limited to post players. While Duke has several talented wing guards, what they are lacking is a true point guard capable of spearheading both the offensive and defensive attacks.
At the beginning of the season, Nolan Smith was starting at the point. Listed at 6'2" and 185 pounds, Nolan has good size for a point guard. He is very quick and athletic, and is a good on-ball defender. His deficiencies lie on offensive side, and they seem to have developed during the season.
At the start of the season, Nolan ran the offense quite well. He was able to penetrate into opposing defenses, allowing him to either finish at the rim, or dish to an open man. He was also Duke's best long-range shooter earlier in the year, hitting 41.9 percent of his three-point attempts in his first ten games.
But at some point during the season, Nolan stopped playing as aggressively. He wasn't looking to penetrate, merely bring the ball up and pass it off to the wings. His shooting and scoring has steadily declined since the tenth game. He was averaging 12.3 points-per-game at that point. He currently averages 9.2, and is shooting 35 percent from deep.
Because of the decline in Nolan's play, Coach K has inserted three-year starter Greg Paulus in as the starting point guard for the last three games. Paulus has long been known for his excellent three-point shooting, but has been widely criticized for his lack of ability to pressure opposing ballhandlers.
And while he has shown the ability to provide an offensive spark (his 18 points against Miami were a big reason Duke won that game), Duke has also been hurt defensively. After giving up on average 60.4 points per game, Duke has not held an opponent under 75 points since Paulus has been starting.
Nolan Smith is only a sophomore, and still has plenty of room to grow and develop, and he definitely is able to do so. But until Duke has a point guard, be it Nolan or someone else, who is able to spearhead Duke's attack on both ends of the floor effectively, there are going to be problems at the point guard position.
Another problem that has been plaguing the Devils lately has been shot selection. Duke has always been a team that has shot a lot of three-pointers. The last few seasons the phrase "Live by the three, die by the three" has been applied to Duke quite a bit. But in the last few games, it has not been the quantity of threes Duke has taken, but the quality.
In the recent six-game stretch, Duke has attempted, on average, 23.5 three-pointers. This is about three more than their season average of 20.4 attempts. Duke has not greatly increased the number they are taking, but they have decreased the quality of the shots.
In the first half of the North Carolina game, Duke shot six-of-nine from deep. The reason is that they were getting good looks. They were attacking the basket off the dribble, drawing defenders away from their defensive assignments and finding open shooters.
In the second half, Duke shot two-of-fifteen, because they stopped attacking the basket and settled for weaving the ball around the perimeter and using ball-screens to try to get open looks.
This seems to be a common theme with Duke this year. When they are playing aggressively and "loose", they generate good open looks that their shooters (and let's be honest, Duke doesn't have a J.J. Redick this year, most of their shooters are adequate at best) are able to hit. But when a game gets tight, and Duke's players are wary of making mistakes that will cost them the game, they make the worst mistake of all, and stop playing with any aggressiveness.
And when you show no desire to attack the paint, any team can become excellent at defending the perimeter.
The only way to correct this problem is for Duke's players to remember how it was that they got a lead in the first place. They need to learn that just because a game is tight, they should not stop playing aggressively. That is actually when it is most important, because, as many an announcer has said, the team that wants it more almost always wins the game.
This is one point where my fellow Duke fans may take issue with me. I am about to do the unthinkable. I am about to question coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Well, actually, I have been questioning him for several years now, if I am being honest. Back when J.J. Redick was running around screens for 40 minutes a game I was wondering why Duke didn't try to establish Shelden Williams down low first, and use that to set up J.J. and get his opportunities.
And now I wonder the same thing. It's obvious Duke doesn't have a Shelden Williams anymore, and it's equally obvious that Brian Zoubek is not going to be the same caliber of player Williams was. But one thing I have noticed—I even mentioned it in an earlier article—is that when Duke gets the ball to Zoubek at the high post, good things happen.
I don't mean that Zoubek scores, or anything like that. What I do mean is that when the ball goes to Zoubek in the paint, all five defenders turn and look at him.
It's not a conscious thing on their part. Certainly if they stopped and thought about it, they wouldn't give him a second thought. But it's instinctive. And in that brief moment of distraction, shooters can glide away from their defenders to an open spot. Cutters can cut to the basket. And the defense will be half a step behind.
And for everything that Zoubek is not, and that's a lot of things, he is a very good passer. He finds cutters. He finds open shooters.
The simple fact is that when Duke makes a conscious effort to get him the ball at the high post, good things almost always happen. I've seen it happen enough times this season that I have to wonder why the coaching staff doesn't work this into their gameplan more often. It works. Nearly every time they do this, there is at least a good look at a good shot. Not a contested jumper off the dribble or off a screen, but a good open look.
But until Krzyzewski develops some sort of confidence in Zoubek, it looks as if he will continue to spend the vast majority of the game sitting next to Miles Plumlee on the bench, instead of making good things happen for his teammates.
But despite all the negative factors Duke is facing, there are actually a few positive things to take away from the recent stretch of games.
First of all, their five-game stretch, beginning with the Wake Forest game and ending with the North Carolina game was probably as tough a stretch of games as your likely to find in all of college basketball this year. Two road games against top-ten teams, a home game against a team that is very talented, and has one of the most explosive guards in the country, and a date with the preseason consensus number one. That's not an easy stretch at all.
Secondly, it looks as if Kyle Singler has broken out of his shooting slump. The last two games he has shot 17-of-32 from the field, including six-of-11 from deep. In his previous five games he was 19-of-66 from the field, and five-of-21 from deep. If he can keep playing at a high level, to go along with Gerald Henderson, those two alone can keep Duke in a lot of games, and give them a chance to win most of them.
Finally, for the last two years Duke has been horribly out-rebounded by their opponents. This season they have been doing a much better job on the boards. Even in their last six games, they have only been out-rebounded by a total of three boards, and were actually out-rebounded by five in the North Carolina game. Duke is close to, or in many cases outright, winning the battle of the boards night in and night out. When you can do that, you put yourself in a position to win more often than not.
So, does Duke have issues they need to address? Absolutely. But, it is my opinion that this season may not play out the way the last two have. Duke's remaining schedule is not the best in the world. They have six regular season games remaining, and four of those are away from home. Two of their games are against team that have already beaten them once.
It would not surprise me in the least to see Duke drop another two games before the season ends. They may not even make it to the semi-finals of the ACC Tournament. But that is less an indication of how bad Duke is, and more an indication of how good the ACC is.
For those of you out there predicting another first-weekend exit from the NCAA Tournament for Duke, I do not hesitate to say that I do not think that will happen this year. I think that this Duke team is more than capable of making it out of the first weekend, and into the Sweet Sixteen. Beyond that will be more difficult, of course. It always is, and it will depend largely on matchups, but this team could conceivably keep playing into the last weekend of the tournament.
But if they bow out early again—and they might, I'm certainly not saying it isn't possible—I will be man enough to eat my words. But I don't think I will have to. Not this year.