It wasn't supposed to go like this.
Losing to Kansas is certainly acceptable, especially so early in the season with a number of new faces still finding their footing, but East Carolina and Vermont were not supposed to have the Cameron Crazies on the edge of their seats in the waning moments.
Duke needed a bailout call at the end of the game against the Catamounts just to escape with a one-point victory. It's far too early to sound the alarm bells in Durham, but Blue Devil fans would be vindicated if they were just a bit concerned.
While Duke's offense has been one of the best in the nation behind Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook, it's not particularly difficult to determine what is ailing Mike Krzyzewski's squad right now—defense and rebounding.
The Blue Devils' guards have been ushering opposing ball-handlers to the rim, and there isn't a formidable interior presence (outside of Parker, who has played bigger than his size would indicate thus far) waiting in the paint to clean up the mess. That's not exactly a winning formula on the defensive end.
What's more, if the defense and rebounding looks this poor against the likes of East Carolina and Vermont, what is going to happen when the Blue Devils play Syracuse, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame on a consistent basis in conference play?
For context, Duke ranks an absolute abysmal 177th in the country in Ken Pomeroy's pace-adjusted defensive efficiency rankings through Monday's games. The fact that it is tops in the nation in the offensive counterpart ratings is the sole reason Duke sports a 5-1 record.
The Blue Devils are also 283rd in the country in total rebounds per game through Monday's action, which is about 250 or more spots lower than Coach K would probably like. They were outrebounded by Davidson and East Carolina and were hammered on the boards by Kansas to the tune of 39-24. Perry Ellis, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid combined for the same amount of rebounds as the entire Duke team that night.
Throwing in a box out or two every now and again probably wouldn't hurt anyone.
So are there any solutions out there, or is Duke simply going to have to make a living outscoring its opponents all year?
Let's start with the lack of a dominant interior presence.
For one, Josh Hairston is only averaging 10 minutes a game, which is actually more than Alex Murphy's seven and Marshall Plumlee's five. Nobody outside of Amile Jefferson has had a chance to really establish themselves in the paint, and even Jefferson is only playing 16 minutes a night.
It may be time to spread out the minutes more evenly across the big-man board because the rotation isn't working thus far.
Plumlee should be sent on the floor with two purposes in mind—grab every rebound in sight and use those five fouls. He can make sure that there is no such thing as a clean look at the rim by simply being physical. It's not like there aren't other (and better) options available down low if he fouls out.
Another potential solution Coach K could try is simply implementing a big lineup for stretches.
If he moved Parker and Hood to the shooting guard and small forward spots while playing some combination of Jefferson, Plumlee, Murphy and Hairston down low, there will be size across the court. The interior defense and rebounding would be much stronger, even if it was just for a handful of minutes per game.
However, it's not fair to solely pile on the interior players. Sure, there isn't a shot-blocking presence down low, but the fact that the ball-handlers on Vermont and East Carolina were escorted to the rim on multiple occasions is on the perimeter defenders in the first place.
Perhaps Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton should be seeing more minutes to help counteract the poor defense from the guards. As effective as Cook has been on offense (his assist-to-turnover improvement is one of the reasons the Blue Devils could ultimately win the national title), he is vulnerable on the defensive end against quick slashers and formidable shooters.
Finally, and at the risk of being accused of proliferating Blue Devil heresy, a zone shouldn't be out of the question. It could serve as something of a makeshift band-aid for almost all of Duke's problems. By packing the middle, rebounding will be instantly improved, there will be more big bodies at the rim on defense, and the guards won't be exposed when beaten off the dribble.
With the versatility and athleticism that Duke has across the board, teams will have incredible difficulty finding open shots against a quick-moving zone. The occasional zone would likely improve the rebounding and defensive statistics to at least a passable level.
And a passable level is all the Blue Devils need because they are arguably the best offensive team in the nation.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.
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