Duke Basketball: Will Long Break Help or Hurt Blue Devils?

Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2013

DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 03:  Coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after a basket by his team during a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 3, 2013 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 79-69.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Call it a quirk in the schedule or a merciful understanding from those that put the slate together of just how difficult final exams can be at a place like Duke, but the Blue Devils basketball players find themselves in the midst of an extended break.

Duke played its first nine games in 26 days but will go a full 13 days between its showdown with Michigan in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and its cupcake date with Gardner-Webb. At the risk of over-analyzing a blip in a long season, is this extended break something that will help or hurt the Blue Devils in the long run?

Ultimately, it depends on whether you take a glass half-full or a glass half-empty approach to the question.

The optimistic viewpoint would acknowledge that the Blue Devils have already played the likes of Kansas, Alabama, Arizona and Michigan and still have UCLA and the treacherous ACC schedule on the docket.

This time off allows the team and its star players time to recover from the inevitable bumps and bruises that come with a college basketball season and to recharge the batteries going forward with most of the schedule still remaining.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: Tyler Thornton #3 of the Duke Blue Devils in action against the Alabama Crimson Tide  during their Semi Final game of the NIT Season Tip Off  at Madison Square Garden on November 27, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/G
Al Bello/Getty Images

In addition to giving Duke some much-needed rest, this time off gives certain players an opportunity to grow more accustomed to their changing roles without the pressure of a game. Mike Krzyzewski made it perfectly clear with his rotation in the victory over the Wolverines that the playing time distribution is going to be different than it was at the beginning of the year.

Duke’s defense was a flat-out liability in contests against Kansas, Vermont and even East Carolina, so Coach K has gradually given guys like Tyler Thornton and Matt Jones more run. It has resulted in better efforts on that end of the floor but has also cut into the playing time of Rasheed Sulaimon (who didn’t even see the court against Michigan).

The big-man rotation has also been fluid between Amile Jefferson, Josh Hairston and even Marshall Plumlee. This time off with allow these players more time to understand their changing roles in practice and be ready come contests against UCLA and the ACC.  

While injury-recovery time and more practices for players in fluid roles are certainly positives, there is a glass half-empty approach to this extended break.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 29:  Tyler Thornton #3 of the Duke Blue Devils in action against the Arizona Wildcats during their championship game of the NIT Season Tip Off at Madison Square Garden on November 29, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Gett
Al Bello/Getty Images

It couldn’t come at much worse of a time if you believe in momentum. The victory over Michigan was Duke’s first marquee win of the season after losing to Arizona and Kansas and beating a handful of weaker opponents. Krzyzewski would likely have preferred to turn right around, play again soon and see if he could get his team to establish something of a rhythm.

Furthermore, the Blue Devils’ defense has been playing at a much higher level. Duke forced 12 turnovers against Michigan and held a typically sharp-shooting squad to 23 percent shooting from behind the three-point line. Even in a losing effort, it forced 16 turnovers against No. 1 Arizona and held Alabama to 16.7 percent shooting from downtown while racking up 10 steals.

The defensive performances are a welcome change to borderline-embarrassing showings against lackluster competition, but the question now is whether it will continue after this long break.

On the other end of the ball, Quinn Cook was playing some of the best basketball of his career before the break. He is averaging 14.6 points, 6.3 assists and less than two turnovers a night behind nearly 50 percent shooting from the field and 87 percent shooting from the charity stripe. He thrashed Michigan for 24 points and nine assists in the last game.

Cook has always been a talented player, but his decision-making and overall play early this season would suggest he has turned a corner. Can he keep it up after two weeks off?

Duke’s immense talent isn’t going to suddenly disappear simply because it had a couple of weeks off in the middle of the season. However, this long break isn’t the most ideal situation, particularly given how the defense has been playing recently.

It was the major liability early in the year (along with the rebounding), and it is more difficult to replicate the recent high level of play on that end of the floor than on the offensive side given how many scoring weapons the Blue Devils have at their disposal. 

This break isn’t crippling by any means, but it’s certainly easier to view it through a glass half-empty perspective at this point. Fortunately for Duke, it has a warm-up game before taking on a dangerous UCLA squad.


Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.