There are few college basketball teams in the country as hot as Duke.
The Blue Devils have recovered from their disastrous ACC start to climb back into the Top 10 after winning seven of the past eight games. Even the one loss came in impressive fashion in overtime at Syracuse with Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson sitting on the bench with five fouls each.
In terms of pure talent, it would be difficult to find more than a small handful of squads across the entire country better than Duke.
However, the goal in Durham every season is to cut down the nets at the Final Four. If that is going to happen, there are some improvements that need to be made before March.
Here are a few of them.
Duke’s rebounding issues have been dissected ad nauseam all season, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t the single biggest concern facing the Blue Devils this season.
Duke ranks 183rd in the country in total rebounds per game, which is rather alarming for a school that has produced so many quality college big guys over the years. That’s not to say it’s all bad in the rebounding department, though.
Amile Jefferson has emerged as a force down low and is actually fifth in the ACC in rebounds per game during conference play. What’s more, Jabari Parker’s willingness to mix it up down low has been the most pleasant surprise about his game and the main reason he is averaging better than eight boards a night.
That being said, the Blue Devils won’t cut down the nets if they don’t improve as an entire unit on the glass.
The lack of interior depth behind Jefferson is the primary culprit for the poor team rebounding numbers.
We can lose easier than last year’s team because, one, we don’t have a lot of depth in the frontcourt. We’re not this big and strong team. There are more opportunities to lose with this team. When you’re coaching, you’d like to reduce the number of ways you can lose. And I’m not sure even as we get better that we’re going to be able to.
Coach K knows this is a serious problem, which means it will be worth keeping an eye on the big-man rotation going forward.
As of Wednesday, Duke ranked a disappointing 89th in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
Considering the Blue Devils are first in the accompanying offensive rankings, this is clearly an area that needs improvement. The perimeter defense has been lacking at times all season, although it has improved since the Notre Dame and Clemson losses.
Quinn Cook still struggles to stay in front of his man, which is why Rasheed Sulaimon has taken over much of the point guard duties recently. Sulaimon uses his athleticism and quickness to dart into passing lanes and cut off penetration opportunities.
Still, Duke needs to do a better job of keeping guys out of the lane on a consistent basis from game to game.
Shot Blocking and Challenging at the Rim
The Blue Devils, especially Cook, struggle to prevent penetration, which becomes even more magnified because there isn’t an imposing shot-blocking presence down low.
Duke ranks 239th in blocks per game, and only Parker is averaging better than .6 swats a night on an individual level. As great as Jefferson has been down low on both ends of the floor and on the glass, he isn’t the best rim protector, which could be a problem going forward.
Fortunately for the Blue Devils, they have arguably the best offense in the country, but it will be hard to win the national title or make the Final Four with a vulnerable defense.
Become a Little Less Reliant on the Three-Pointer
We are nitpicking a bit here because, as mentioned, Duke has the best offense in the nation in Pomeroy’s ratings, but the expression “live by the three, die by the three” exists for a reason.
Between Cook, Tyler Thornton, Matt Jones, Andre Dawkins, Parker, Sulaimon and Rodney Hood, there is no team in the country better equipped at hitting the three-pointer than Duke. In fact, its 42 percent clip from behind the arc is best in the nation.
However, if there was to be a game in the one-and-done format of the NCAA tournament where those three-point shots weren’t falling, the Blue Devils will need other ways to score. Recently, Parker has developed his post game more, which will play a major factor in the Big Dance, but the team as a whole can’t be quite so reliant on the long ball.
Again, this is just nitpicking an incredible offense, but it’s worth at least mentioning.
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