The mere notion that Duke’s season would be at a crossroads in mid-January with the amount of talent on the roster and the legendary Mike Krzyzewski at the helm would have sounded completely absurd back in November.
However, if we look back at the course of the Blue Devils’ first 17 games, it’s not much of a stretch to declare the next few contests as a collective litmus test for how the rest of the year will play out.
Sure, the early losses were disappointing, but they came after hard-fought battles on neutral courts against the likes of Kansas and Arizona. It was easy to look on the bright side when freshman Jabari Parker was taking the college basketball world by storm by putting up video game numbers, Rodney Hood was doing his best Scottie Pippen impersonation, and Quinn Cook was playing the best basketball of his career.
In fact, it was closer-than-they-should-have-been victories rather than defeats that had Duke fans most worried. The Blue Devils went with the invisible defense on the perimeter against Vermont and East Carolina with nobody at the rim to enforce his will at the lane. Believe it or not, it didn’t work too well.
However, things appeared to be turning around for the better with a few rotational changes that led to better defense and impressive wins over Michigan and UCLA. Suddenly, with Tyler Thornton and even a sprinkling of Marshall Plumlee, Duke had at least a passable defense to go along with its red-hot offense. The future was still bright.
Then ACC play started.
Duke has yet to play a ranked foe in conference and still sits at a mere 2-2. Even though it beat Virginia in the latest game, it almost felt like a loss considering the Blue Devils blew a double-digit lead in the final minutes before Rasheed Sulaimon (with some help from a friendly rim) bailed them out with a monumental three-pointer.
Perhaps more concerning than the 2-2 start is the fact that Parker has looked very human recently. The freshman has shot a combined 19-of-59 in his past five games from the field and 5-of-21 from downtown. He struggled with double-teams and finding an offensive rhythm and was even benched in the final four minutes against the Irish.
Struggles or not, it still caught the nation’s attention when Coach K benched his best player in the closing stretch of what was eventually a two-point loss.
Suddenly, mighty Duke, along with its shiny new freshman toy, looks incredibly vulnerable.
That’s not to say there aren’t some positive signs even in the midst of the recent struggles. For one, the Blue Devils, who rank 232nd in the country in rebounding as of this writing, may finally have found their answer down low with Amile Jefferson.
Jefferson totaled 15 rebounds against Virginia, 10 against Georgia Tech and nine against Notre Dame, and he shot 5-of-8 from the floor in the past three games. His minutes have increased and figure to do so even more after he posted a double-double against the Cavaliers.
Furthermore, Hood has continued to play at an elite level while Parker struggles, and Sulaimon may finally have resurrected his confidence with the game-winner after being benched the entire Michigan game.
With Jefferson and Sulaimon turning things around and Hood playing like the best second scoring option in the country, it’s easy to take a glass-half-full approach with the majority of ACC play still on the horizon. However, even the most optimistic Blue Devils fans can’t envision winning out with two games against Syracuse, two games against North Carolina and potentially dangerous trips to Pittsburgh and Wake Forest still on the docket.
Will Duke make the Elite Eight this year?
That is why this next stretch of games is so critical. Duke plays North Carolina State and Florida State at home with a trip to Miami squeezed in the middle before two straight road contests against Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Even though they pose as challenges, the Blue Devils will be favored in each of the next three contests and will have an edge in talent and athleticism.
Assuming Coach K’s squad understands the importance of this upcoming three-game stretch, there is too much talent on this roster for the players to come out flat. Look for Parker to break through the freshman wall he seems to be stuck behind right now and the Blue Devils to rack together a few wins with a renewed inside presence in Jefferson.
However, if Duke continues to struggle, a slippery slope may just be waiting for them after this upcoming stretch. Losing any of the next three games before a road trip that could easily end in two more defeats could be detrimental. If that becomes the case, we will be looking at a dangerously mediocre resume that is easy to poke holes in.
No pressure or anything.
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