And the roller-coaster ride continues.
The Duke basketball program has now won three consecutive games after it appeared like the sky was falling in Durham following two losses in three contests against mediocre Notre Dame and Clemson squads.
It has been a season of peaks and valleys thus far, with early losses to Kansas and Arizona dampening spirits, bounce-back wins against Michigan (a victory that looks better and better with every Big Ten win the Wolverines record) and UCLA injecting optimism and then the aforementioned ACC losses raising some more red flags.
Still, it’s easy to feel upbeat about the three-game winning streak.
While the Virginia victory came by a narrow four-point margin after the Blue Devils almost collapsed down the stretch, Mike Krzyzewski’s bunch destroyed North Carolina State 95-60 and picked up their first true road win of the season at Miami to the tune of 67-46. At least for those two nights, many of the issues that hampered Duke when it was struggling disappeared.
However, there have been some overarching problems during the season that are going to need to be consistently corrected if an ACC title is in the cards, especially with two dates with Syracuse on the horizon.
Duke’s abysmal rebounding issues have been discussed ad nauseam, but that doesn’t mean they still won’t be its Achilles' heel this season. Before we get to that, though, let’s dig into some other less-publicized concerns.
The Blue Devils offense was humming along (even during the loss to Kansas) in the early season, but when they lost two of their first three ACC games, they struggled largely because superstar Jabari Parker couldn’t find the touch. In fact, during a five-game stretch against Elon, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia, Parker shot 19-of-59 from the field and 5-of-21 from behind the three-point line.
To make matters worse, Parker was benched in the final four minutes of the two-point loss to the Fighting Irish.
Duke is not a great defensive team, so it needs Parker to score on a consistent basis as the go-to option. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman points out how the freshman bounced back against Miami and North Carolina State:
Jabari Parker not settling for long jumpers the last two games.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) January 23, 2014
When he was struggling, Parker was settling for too many long jumpers and forcing the issue when double-teams came his way. If he plays within the offense like he did in the past two contests, the Blue Devils offense will be one of the best in the nation for the rest of the year.
Where will Duke finish in the ACC?
On the other end of the floor, many have been quick to point to the lack of a true interior presence to deter opponents from driving in the lane, but the perimeter defense has been just as concerning at times.
Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon, Rodney Hood and Parker have had trouble preventing penetration all season, which has emphasized the lack of a consistent shot-blocker. There are too many dangerous ball-handlers in the ACC that Duke is yet to face for the perimeter defense to be lacking going forward.
As for the lack of an interior presence, the solution may have presented itself in Amile Jefferson. He has vastly outplayed the likes of Josh Hairston and Marshall Plumlee and has rewarded Krzyzewski for playing him extended minutes.
Jefferson’s past five box scores are as follows:
His rebounding is up, his field-goal percentage has been impressive, and he even posted a double-double. The lack of interior depth is still a concern, but if Duke wants to win an ACC title, the perimeter defense may be even a bigger issue with Jefferson’s emergence.
Nevertheless, the Blue Devils’ conference championship hopes still circle back to whether they can at least put together enough patchwork rebounding going forward. They don’t have to be a top-50 rebounding squad nationally with their offense, but it has to be better than it has been.
Coming into the Miami game, Duke ranked 226th in the nation in total rebounds per game. Whether playing a bigger lineup, instituting the occasional zone or something else is the answer is for Krzyzewski to figure out, but Duke won’t win an ACC Championship if it ranks sub-200 in the country on the boards.
For now, the ACC is Syracuse’s to lose, but if the Blue Devils correct these problems, they could quickly get back in the race.