Duke Basketball: What Happens When Whack-a-Mole Goes Wrong?

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Duke Basketball: What Happens When Whack-a-Mole Goes Wrong?
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke has five players capable of leading the team in scoring on any given night.

Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are the obvious offensive threats. Andre Dawkins’ three-point shooting means that he can explode for huge numbers. Rasheed Sulaimon uses a more workmanlike approach to accumulate impressive point totals. Even the mercurial Quinn Cook has had games where he led the Blue Devils in scoring.

The multitude of scorers means that opposing defenses can’t key on one player. Trying to stop penetration gives the Blue Devils space on the perimeter for open looks at threes. Focusing on perimeter defense allows Duke to utilize penetration. It’s a Whack-a-Mole type of problem for opponents. As soon as you plug up one hole, a new problem pops up somewhere else.

This approach has been highly effective for the Blue Devils. Duke leads the nation with a historically good offensive efficiency rating. They’re averaging 81.7 points-per-game and shooting 47 percent for the season.

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The only problem that hampers the Blue Devils offensively is when the Whack-A-Mole strategy goes wrong.

Duke edged out Maryland for a 69-67 win. Even though there were plenty of positives to take away from that game, it highlighted one large negative: Duke doesn’t have a go-to guy.

The Blue Devils shot 33.3 percent against Maryland and no one on the floor looked particularly good on offense for Duke. In dire need of points, Rodney Hood repeatedly tried to stem the Terrapin tide by driving the lane or launching threes.

Against Syracuse, it was Rasheed Sulaimon that forced overtime with a buzzer-beater. He also had a critical three-pointer in the win over Virginia and was the best player down the stretch in the loss to Kansas.

Jabari Parker, meanwhile, was instrumental in some early contests, including the nail-biter with Vermont. On the other hand he was almost non-existent late in the game versus Notre Dame.

And of course, who could forget all the Quinn Cook shots at critical points in the Clemson game?

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The point is that Duke doesn’t have one player that sticks out as the person who needs the ball in his hand when the game is on the line. Instead, Duke has a variety of players than can all score and they just take their opportunities as they come.

Throughout the game each of these players might take over for stretches. Alternatively, they may all just take a kind of heat check, determine who has the hot hand and then spend the rest of the game letting that player repeatedly put up shots. When it works, that strategy is hard to beat. When it doesn’t, the Blue Devils are left scrambling to find someone to step up during crucial moments.

The Maryland game highlighted this problem. Rodney Hood was having a horrible shooting night, but he seemed to be the de facto alpha dog. As good as he is, defending Hood mostly amounts to getting good help defense in order to stop his penetration. His three-point shooting is good, but not so great that you’d expect him to make a clutch three – and that’s especially true if he’s having an off shooting night like he was against the Terps.

Sulaimon is more versatile than Hood off penetration, but is similarly predictable. The result is that when Duke most needed points, they ran some motion offense and then let either Hood or Sulaimon drive. Everyone in the gym knew what was coming and Marylandwho is not a very good defensive team – was able to keep Duke for scoring time and time again.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It’d be easy to write off what I’m saying as nitpicking. After all, there are countless articles on Duke’s deficiencies in rebounding and defense, but everyone agrees that the offense is a juggernaut. Yet the lack of a sure-fire, go-to guy in the waning minutes of a tight game is something that could ultimately hamper Duke when it matters most.

When everything is loose and fluid, Duke’s offense is a thing of beauty. Points can come from just about any player from any spot on the floor. When things tighten up and the game is on the line, however, the Blue Devils need to be able to single out someone that score from a piece of set offense.

Ideally that’d mean getting the ball to Parker in the post. If the freshman isn’t up to that or if Duke can’t get away from the Whack-a-Mole approach in late-game situations, then the Blue Devils will find themselves in a hole they can’t dig out of.

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