Duke has played two NCAA tournament games and neither has been a work of art. The team could never put away a feisty Albany squad and the Creighton game devolved into a slugfest of fouls and missed shots.
Still, a win is a win and Duke won both games. In doing so, the Blue Devils have demonstrated an ability to win despite a variety of obstacles.
Against Albany, Duke shot 58.7 percent from the floor but committed 11 turnovers. The Blue Devils also didn’t defend the perimeter well as Albany hit 9-of-15 from deep. Still, Duke escaped with a 73-61 win thanks to big performances from seniors Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee.
The game against Creighton was essentially the reverse situation. Duke shot a paltry 38.8 percent and the seniors struggled to score or got into foul trouble. But the Blue Devils were saved by the significant contributions of freshmen Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson and a strong defensive effort that held the usually sharp-shooting Bluejays to a 2-of-19 mark from downtown.
What got showcased in Philadelphia was the fact that for all of Duke's weaknesses—lack of rebounding, reliance on jump shots, spotty defense, etc—the team has a variety of different ways to answer those challenges.
When Ryan Kelly got hurt during the regular season, Duke was forced to forge a new team identity. During that stretch of games, Duke didn’t often win pretty, but players like Sulaimon, Jefferson and Quinn Cook stepped up enough to ensure hard-fought victories. The added pressure on those players might have led to a few losses along the way, but in the long run, it aided their development.
Now that Kelly is back in the rotation, the Blue Devils boast a roster of guys that are composed enough to shoulder the load during tough stretches for the team.
Seth Curry’s hot hand against Albany saved Duke from another Lehigh situation, while Rasheed Sulaimon’s ability to attack the basket was the key to avoiding an upset against Creighton. In each of those games, a lot went wrong for Duke. Yet the Blue Devils had a response to each of those disjointed affairs, and each time the response came from a different player reacting to a different problem.
After watching Duke struggle against two lower seeds, it’s easy to think that this team is heading into a buzz saw in the form of Michigan State. However, that game, like the previous two, is likely to be a physical contest that could easily spiral into yet another hot mess of hustle plays and scrappy baskets. If that’s the case, then these two ugly wins auger well for Duke.
In each game, Coach K’s squad ran into problems and adjusted well enough to survive. Whether it was turnovers and bad defense or poor shooting and foul trouble, Duke did what it took to win. That’s a testament to the Blue Devils’ versatility.
The team has grown into the basketball version of a Swiss Army Knife. Whatever the problem, there is a player on Duke’s roster with the appropriate tools to address the situation.
All season it’s been said that if Duke is making shots they are nearly unbeatable, but if those shots aren’t falling the Blue Devils are vulnerable. In two tournament games, Duke hasn’t been at its most effective on offense, yet here they are advancing to the Sweet 16.
To beat Michigan State, Duke will need a better offensive effort than what they’ve shown in the previous two games, but what Duke has proven is that this team isn’t just about offense. Finally, after a long season, Duke has developed into a well-rounded team. That’s exactly the sort of squad that can overcome the various obstacles that crop up during a tournament run.
It hasn’t been pretty, but it’s been effective. Again, it’s a Swiss Army Knife approach to the game, so there’s bound to be some rough edges. But who is going to complain about a utilitarian effort if it results in a trip to Atlanta?