Impressive victories over the likes of UCLA and Michigan had many college basketball fans and commentators believing that the issues that hampered Duke in early losses to Kansas and Arizona and narrow wins against East Carolina and Vermont were gradually improving.
Turns out we may have spoken too soon.
The Blue Devils dropped their most recent contest against a Notre Dame team that was still fresh off the dismissal of leading scorer Jerian Grant and a stunning collapse against Ohio State.
Once again, the defense struggled mightily down the stretch and the Irish pounded Mike Krzyzewski’s squad on the boards.
What’s more, superstar Jabari Parker appeared human for the first time all season with a mere seven points on 2-of-10 shooting. It was the first time he failed to reach double-digit scoring totals in a game this year.
Starting off ACC play with a loss in a league rife with changes was not exactly what Coach K had in mind, especially since it came against one of the newcomers. It was also Duke’s first true road game of the season, which has to be of some concern considering the youth on the roster.
The Blue Devils fell out of the Associated Press poll's Top 10 following the upset for the first time since December of 2007. The 122 consecutive weeks as a Top 10 team was the second-longest streak of all time behind only UCLA’s 155-week stretch from 1966-76.
Duke will look to bounce back in an upcoming stretch against the likes of Georgia Tech, Clemson, Virginia, North Carolina State and Miami. It should win most of those games simply by showing up, although the trip to Clemson could prove to be a significant challenge considering how the Blue Devils were outplayed down the stretch at Notre Dame.
However, the only way Coach K’s squad will rebound from the 0-1 start to conference play will be with a handful of adjustments.
For one, Duke must make sure that Parker’s struggles against the Irish were a mere blip on the radar of what will undoubtedly be an excellent ACC season.
There will occasionally be games when superstars struggle from the field, but Parker had trouble with double-teams and watched the final three minutes of a tightly contested game from the bench.
Whether you agree with Krzyzewski’s decision to sit his best overall player in the waning moments of the loss or not, the Blue Devils need Parker to be the formidable presence he has been all year if they want to win the ACC. The best way to help him bounce back from his struggles against Notre Dame is by running some plays early in the next few games that are specifically designed to get him easy looks at the basket.
Parker may be the most talented player in the country and next No. 1 pick in the draft, but he is still a freshman. Watching Parker play, it's easy to forget that who he was going to ask to prom was a serious concern in his life a handful of months ago.
Coach K will have to balance Parker’s confidence going forward, especially after the benching against the Irish.
From a tactical standpoint, when Parker faces double-teams in the future, perhaps moving him to the top of the key and spreading the floor would be an effective response. The Blue Devils have so many weapons on the floor at once that Parker would be able to find someone an open look if two defenders were heading his way on the perimeter.
Parker’s struggles in the Notre Dame contest can simply be chalked up to a fluke game, but the Blue Devils’ rebounding and defensive woes cannot.
At this point in the season, discussing Duke’s rebounding issues has become almost wearisome, as it appears this will be a crippling problem until Jahlil Okafor arrives next year.
The best solution going forward probably means playing Amile Jefferson more minutes, attempting to neutralize this disadvantage by forcing more turnovers with full-court pressure or even daring to utilize a zone for stretches.
Jefferson grabbed nine rebounds, including four on the offensive side of the ball, in 21 minutes against Notre Dame, while starter Josh Hairston didn’t record a single board. For context, Jefferson is averaging six rebounds a game in 16.8 minutes a night compared to Hairston’s 1.6 boards a game in 14 minutes a night.
Outside of playing Jefferson more, both increased full-court pressure and packing the lane down low in a zone could also help Duke with its struggling defense, which was something of a train wreck in the second half against the Irish.
Notre Dame outscored Duke 44-16 in the paint, and while it may not be traditional Duke basketball, the only place the interior defense and rebounding can go is up with a zone.
Otherwise, we will see more nights like the one in South Bend for the Blue Devils as ACC play heats up.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.