After barely avoiding what would’ve been a soul-crushing loss to Maryland, Duke spiritually squashed any momentum it had by losing to North Carolina.
The 74-66 loss was marked by a stretch of unrelentingly poor shooting by the Blue Devils. After a solid 20-minute effort on both offense and defense, Duke choked away a double-digit lead in the second half. The collapse was lowlighted by a six-minute scoreless stretch for the Blue Devils.
This hard-to-swallow loss not only gifted an arsenal of insults to North Carolina fans, who will forever talk about the "postponement game," but it exposed Duke’s most egregious weaknesses. The regular season is winding down, and if the Blue Devils don’t do something quick, the problems that handed North Carolina a win will ultimately end Duke’s season in the NCAA tournament.
I wrote about this recently, but the UNC loss merits mentioning it again. Everyone knows that Duke has tons of guys who can score in a variety of ways. While that’s great, and it's led to one of the best offenses in the country, it creates a somewhat counter-intuitive problem at crucial moments.
When the game is on the line or when things are going wrong—for example, when Duke can’t score for six full minutes—no one steps up to take control of the game by driving the lane and getting a much-needed bucket.
Essentially, Duke has the basketball equivalent of baseball’s closer-by-committee strategy. The Blue Devils just go with whoever has the hot hand when the game is on the line. The problem with that is that if no one has the hot hand, then they just end up swinging the ball around until someone puts up a three.
What Duke needs is someone on the team to become the alpha dog. This person would recognize when things start to get squirrely offensively and simply take matters into his own hands by driving the lane for a foul or high-percentage shot. That sort of selfishness would at least stem the tide when missed shots start to snowball for Duke.
If Duke doesn’t figure out who the de facto go-to guy is, then any time momentum swings against the Blue Devils, they’ll be busy searching for someone with a hot hand while things continue to spiral out of control.
When teams play a 1-3-1 defense, Duke’s typically dynamic offense gets one-dimensional real quick. Instead of penetrating or finding Jabari Parker in the post, Duke sees a 1-3-1 setup and merely moves the ball side to side until there’s an opportunity for a semi-open three-pointer.
Maryland utilized this strategy to great effect, and North Carolina followed suit. Whether Roy Williams went to the 1-3-1 because he saw how it worked for the Terps or simply to keep James Michael McAdoo out of foul trouble, as soon as the 1-3-1 showed up, Duke’s offense left the building.
In the game against Syracuse, Duke was hot from three, so the lack of creativity on offense was somewhat obscured. Both Maryland and North Carolina, however, caught the Blue Devils on nights when the long-range shots weren’t going down. The result was that Duke got out of what was working well on offense in favor of chucking up errant threes against the zone.
The most frustrating part of Duke’s completely lazy approach to attacking a 1-3-1 zone is that Parker is the perfect player to rip that defensive alignment apart. The way to beat the 1-3-1 is to get the ball to a player right at the free-throw line. That player can either turn and shoot or pass out to an open player when the zone is forced to collapse on him.
Parker has an excellent mid-range shot and is a more-than-capable passer. Yet against Syracuse, Parker set up in the middle of the zone once (he turned and made a jumper), and he didn’t do it at all against the 1-3-1 employed by Maryland or North Carolina.
Even if opponents just use the 1-3-1 as a gimmick, it’s something that totally befuddles the Blue Devils and disrupts their offensive momentum. It turns a team that can score in a multitude of ways into one that’s content to live and dies by the three.
You can’t blame this, or any loss, on just one player. The game against North Carolina was most certainly a team failure. However, Quinn Cook is killing Duke.
When he’s bad, he’s beyond terrible. When he’s good, he’s still kind of bad. That is the essence of the enigma that is Quinn Cook.
Cook had 17 points against the Tar Heels, which tied him with Jabari Parker as Duke’s leading scorer. And yet he still did things that directly contributed to Duke’s downfall.
Despite being the only Blue Devil not to get in foul trouble, Cook’s defense was far from laudable. He did have one really nice steal, but his ball pressure certainly wasn’t up to snuff. Despite a couple of great assists, Cook had two ghastly turnovers. And despite scoring 17 points, Cook killed a couple offensive possessions with inexcusably bad shots or by aimlessly dribbling around until way too late in the shot clock.
Ultimately, when Cook isn’t shooting well, he’s unable to contribute much to Duke. When he is shooting well, he contributes but then overdoes it to the point that he’s forcing threes or unimaginatively dribbling at the top of key for extended periods of time before recklessly trying to drive or launching an ill-advised three.
If Cook is going to play 33 minutes, as he did against North Carolina, then the junior point guard needs to stop negating any positives he brings to the team with empty possessions where he tries to be the next Jason Williams.
Duke can win a national title with Cook playing an understated role where he doesn’t try to do too much. If, on the other hand, he continues to be a liability even when he’s playing well, then every game against a quality opponent is a crapshoot, where if Duke doesn’t have a hot hand, it's likely to go bust.
Compared to where it was in the game against Vermont back on Nov. 24, Duke’s defense has come a long way. That being said, the Blue Devils still struggle to stop penetration and are incredibly absent-minded when it comes to boxing out.
In the first half, Duke applied fantastic ball pressure that kept Marcus Paige in check and forced North Carolina into turnovers. However, many times during that period of solid defense, Duke was forced to foul a player trying to penetrate. Eventually, those fouls piled up. By the second half, every Blue Devil was trying to avoid a third, fourth or fifth foul, which took the air of the defensive ball pressure and allowed the Tar Heels enough space to operate.
You can blame the officials if you want, but when you get beat off the dribble or are late to switch, you leave yourself vulnerable to foul calls. Duke repeatedly gave the refs an opportunity to blow the whistle. Once foul trouble forced the defense to take a more cautious approach, North Carolina’s offense started to show signs of life.
The Blue Devils also shot themselves in the foot by not boxing out. The Tar Heels outrebounded Duke 43-30 and ended up with 16 second-chance points. Time and again, North Carolina got putback dunks or buckets because Rodney Hood or Parker didn’t put a body on anyone. For an undersized team, failing that fundamental aspect of rebounding is a recipe for disaster.
In games that Duke has struggled to win or lost outright, there has been a substantial period of time when the Blue Devils offense went quiet. It’s OK to rely on offensive potency to win games, but when shots aren’t falling, it becomes imperative that Duke gets defensive stops.
Right now, Duke’s defensive effort isn’t good enough to overcome foul trouble or hold a lead through a scoring drought. Gutting out wins—even on poor shooting nights—is essential for NCAA tournament success, and right now, the Blue Devils don't have that in them.