The Duke basketball team may not be pleased it has lost two of its first nine contests, but it is still on the short list of legitimate Final Four contenders this season.
The Blue Devils put together their most complete effort of the year last time out against Michigan and will look to seize some momentum going forward. There have been a handful of improvements, both from last season and from earlier in the schedule, that should help Mike Krzyzewski’s squad in the stretch run.
Let’s dig into a few of them.
It’s easy to look at Duke’s 77 points per game last year and its 86 points a night in a vacuum and say the scoring has improved. While that is the simplest way to break it down, the pure scoring is so much better this year for a number of reasons.
For one, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood can create their own shots almost at will. Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee were excellent in their own right, but Curry couldn’t create his own opportunity off the dribble anywhere near as effectively as Parker or Hood, and Plumlee scored many of his points from offensive putbacks.
The field-goal percentage in the early going this season is at 52 percent, while last year it was 47 percent. Parker and Hood are shooting 55 and 59 percent respectively, and their teammates are benefiting from the extra defensive attention each draws.
Furthermore, this Blue Devils squad is better from behind the three-point line. As a team, they are shooting 42 percent, with five guys shooting at least 46 percent, while last year’s squad hit less than 40 percent with zero players shooting better than 46 percent.
The assist totals are fairly similar between last year and this year for Duke, but the overall passing is crisper and more effective. Last season the Blue Devils dished out 14 assists per game as compared to 16 a night this season.
Quinn Cook is averaging an entire assist more per game than he did last year from the point guard spot, and he has more control over the pace of the game in the half-court set. He hasn’t turned it over as frequently and hasn’t been as selfish in situations where he should look for a teammate.
Parker and Hood are also unselfish as superstars and have no issues dishing to teammates when opposing defenses are collapsing in on drives or perimeter looks. Neither forces the issue, which will benefit the Duke offense when ACC play heats up.
Game-to-Game Defense (tentatively)
Let’s not jump to an ambitious conclusion based on a small sample size, but Duke’s defense was a serious liability at the beginning of the year and was much improved the last three times out.
While the Blue Devils were escorting ball-handlers to the lane against East Carolina and Vermont, the defense was the main reason they knocked Michigan off in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Wolverines turned it over 12 times and only shot 23 percent from behind the three-point line and never looked comfortable on offense.
Even in defeat Duke was able to force 16 turnovers against Arizona in the game before Michigan, and the Blue Devils knocked Alabama off by tallying 10 steals and holding the Tide to 64 points.
While it’s too early to call Duke’s defense a strength, there has certainly been some improvement from what it was early in the schedule.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.