There is something to be learned from each and every game. However, when it’s Duke versus UNC, the strengths and weaknesses of a team are highlighted by one of sports’ greatest rivalries.
Though Duke got a hard-fought and valuable win, a lot of areas in need of improvement were exposed. For Duke to succeed in the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils will have to build on the strengths demonstrated against UNC while correcting the causes for concern.
So here are the 10 things learned from Duke’s 73-68 win over North Carolina.
This problem is the instigator of most of Duke’s other weaknesses. Since Ryan Kelly went down, the Blue Devils haven’t found a lineup that works consistently.
Every combination of five guys has a different liability. If Amile Jefferson is in, then that clogs up the post. If Hairston is in, Duke loses scoring. If Murphy is in, he can’t play defense. If Thornton is in, maybe he makes threes, but usually he's an offensive albatross.
The shifting lineup confuses defensive and offensive assignments. The team is constantly attempting figure out how to react to the opponent and to each other.
Against the Tar Heels, Tyler Thornton stepped up with crucial threes and was rewarded with substantial minutes. Game by game Duke is forced to essentially figure out who the hot hand is on the fly. That’s a recipe for slow starts, which is itself a key ingredient in an early NCAA exit.
The Blue Devils fell behind early because for much of the first half Duke played atrocious defense.
Ryan Kelly wasn’t just an offensive weapon, he was the vocal leader of the defense. In his absence, clearly no other Blue Devil has risen to his level of defensive leadership.
Duke constantly failed to communicate on switches. Countless times two Duke defenders chased the same player and left an opponent wide open. Other times a Duke player half-heartedly hedged over in help defense that offered only meek resistance.
Throughout the game UNC got good looks, but cold shooting stretches saved Duke from an insurmountable deficit. Still, Duke has got to get its act together in terms of sorting out when to switch on defense.
Despite all the media attention given to the duo of Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee, Cook and Sulaimon are Duke’s key players. The reason is that both Cook and Sulaimon are versatile scorers whereas Curry and Plumlee are not.
Stretches of poor shooting are inevitable. What gets a team through those periods is finding alternative ways to score.
While Curry is unquestionably the team’s best three-point shooter, his injury looks to have limited his ability to drive to the basket with regularity. Plumlee, meanwhile, can only post up and when a defender is getting the better of him, there isn’t a plan B.
Cook and Suliamon, on the other hand, can not only shoot from the outside, both can also get into the lane for higher percentage shots. Obviously Curry and Plumlee typically tally up more points than Cook and Sulaimon, but the reason the later duo is more integral to Duke is that their skill set allows the team to weather storms of bad shooting.
When the shots aren’t falling, Cook and Sulaimon have to carry the load by getting shots in the paint until the good shooting form returns. They did that against UNC and the result was Duke staying close until the shots finally started to fall and the Blue Devils could finally push ahead.
As versatile as Quinn Cook is, he still makes too many mistakes as a point guard. Too often he fails to feed the post properly and throws misguided lobs as Plumlee charges to the rim.
Against UNC, the sophomore guard had five turnovers and two assists. Duke’s offense as a whole only had one assist in the first half.
Cook has made a lot of strides since he first arrived on campus, but his running of the offense still leaves a lot to be desired.
His habit of leaving his feet to make a pass resulted in more than one turnover to the Tar Heels and is indicative of his occasional lapses in judgment. Cook needs to ensure that the offensive sets are run crisply, he needs to control the pace of the game and make sound decisions in transition.
There are moments when he does these things, so the potential is clearly there. And against UNC, Cook clearly showed off his ability to score when Duke desperately needed points. Still, his improvement in running the offense will determine how far the Blue Devils go at the end of the season.
When it comes to help defense, Plumlee often finds himself in no man’s land between the two opponents. That happened more frequently against UNC because Plumlee was obviously concerned about picking up another foul.
While the mindfulness of his foul trouble was a positive thing, his defense in the post and switching on the perimeter continually put him out of position. That resulted in a plethora of easy baskets for the Tar Heels.
On offense, Plumlee has had difficulty all year setting up his position close to the basket. All season he has received entry passes well outside of the lane. Part of that is due to his teammates not getting him the ball effectively, but part of it is also Plumlee allowing himself to get pushed off the blocks.
Against UNC, Plumlee did show improvement on his post moves. In the BC game, Plumlee kept spinning in place and failing to gain any ground toward the basket. Against UNC, he used a drop-step more effectively and forced his way toward the basket.
If teams are going to focus on perimeter defense and leave Plumlee to go one on one, as UNC did, then he has to score for Duke. The Blue Devils need every easy basket they can get.
Going into the game, transition defense was a point of emphasis. Not only isn’t Duke good at defending it, UNC is really good at getting out in transition. During the first half, that nightmare scenario played out.
The first basket came off a UNC fast break. From there, Duke kept turning it over and allowing UNC to get down the court without allowing Duke to set up defensively. Ultimately, much of the first-half margin that UNC built was done on the back of pushing the ball down the court quickly after Blue Devil miscues on the offensive end.
Until the BC game, Duke had done a good job of limiting turnovers and thereby cutting down on transition chances. Against both BC and UNC, however, Duke supplied ample opportunities for the opponents to get out and run.
UNC’s smaller lineup simply outran a slower Duke squad. Going forward, the Blue Devils are going to have cut down on the turnovers and play smarter in terms of quickly finding their defensive assignments.
The freshman guard played his heart out in his first rivalry game. When his three-point shooting stroke wasn’t finding the mark, Sulaimon drove inside for pull-up jumpers, layups and beautiful dishes to open teammates.
He finished with 13 points and five assists. Most impressive, many of those made baskets and dimes came at critical moments in the game.
Sulaimon is integral to Duke’s success. On a big stage the freshman didn’t shrink. That shouldn’t come as too big a surprise given that he had 25 against quasi-rival Maryland and finished in double digits against Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State (game log via ESPN).
As the season progresses, the spotlight shines brighter and brighter. Sulaimon proved against UNC that he has the skills and sense to make his mark on even the biggest of stages. That's great news for Duke going forward.
During the rough patch that started the game, Amile Jefferson was the lone bright spot for Duke. His tenacity on the boards kept Duke in the game early. He didn’t get the start, but for certain Jefferson gave the Blue Devils the most production in the post outside of Mason Plumlee.
The freshman forward finished with just two points, but had eight rebounds in 20 minutes of play (box score via ESPN). Three of his boards were offensive and he even added a steal in the second half.
All in all, Jefferson brings some needed toughness to Duke. He’s shown that he can answer Duke’s early season rebounding worries and, unlike Hairston, can add a few points to the scoreboard as well.
In fact, he even drove to the post against a UNC defender. The shot didn’t go down, but it showed that Jefferson is gaining confidence and is set to be a regular contributor for the team.
On offense, Duke tends to get into the lane and cough up the ball on a bad pass. On defense, the Blue Devils can’t keep opponents from driving past them into the paint.
On the surface, those problems fall squarely on the guard play. However, the post players aren’t entirely exempt from the blame.
On offense, Mason Plumlee could do a better job sealing defenders away from the drive. He’d also do well to relocate as a teammate slashes toward the basket, something the other perimeter players fail to do as well.
Against UNC you could see that when a Duke player cut to the basket, there was a tendency for his teammates to stand still and watch. That leaves the ball-handler with limited options and caused quite a few of the Blue Devil turnovers.
On defense, Duke simply has to figure out how to stop slashing guards. Duke’s patented pressure defense is effective in terms of perimeter defense, but neither Quinn Cook nor Tyler Thornton could stay in front of their defensive assignments.
I’ve listed a lot of negative things that cropped up during the game, but in the end Duke won. The reason the Blue Devils won is, very simply, that they stuck with it.
When Miami started hot and Duke was ice cold, the Blue Devils folded like a cheap suit. That didn’t happen against the Tar Heels. Sure, Duke was a home, not in a hostile crowd like with Miami, but the Blue Devils looked to have learned from that mistake against the Hurricanes.
Throughout the game Duke adjusted and persevered. Rather than launch three after three, Duke shifted to an offense more about mid-range jumpers and post play. The Blue Devils banged on the boards for missed shots to the tune of 11 offensive rebounds.
Then, finally, the shots started to fall. Still, it wasn’t the shooting that bailed Duke out of a loss. What saved the Blue Devils was their ability to preserve through hard times. That’s a strong quality, and one that they’ll need come tournament time.