The regular season is over, and for the Blue Devils, it was anything but static. So what does this up-and-down year of impressive wins and mind-boggling loses portend for the ACC and NCAA tournaments? Effectively, Duke’s quizzical past and questionable future were laid bare in the final two contest of the regular season.
As usual, Duke played a daunting schedule. The positives from games against top competition were that the Blue Devils proved they can hang with the best teams in the country. Duke tallied five wins versus teams in the RPI top 50. Those victories including a road win versus Pittsburgh and comfortable victory at home over Michigan.
Even Duke’s four loses to top 50 RPI teams also gave the Blue Devils some reasons to feel good. Duke was very much in the game against Kansas, Arizona and Syracuse. Although the Blue Devils came up short in those games, it was encouraging to see that Duke’s talent level is easily on par with the best teams in the country.
Duke posted some truly impressive wins and kept pace with the other top teams in close loses. As a result, Duke finished in the top 10 for both RPI and strength of schedule. It was that top-notch version of the Duke team that trounced North Carolina last Saturday.
Against the Tar Heels, the second-best offense in the country was in good form. Duke struggled from three-point range in the first half but still went into the locker room with 40 points and a three-point lead. When those three-pointers started finding the mark in the second half, Duke racked up 50 points and put the game out of reach.
The Blue Devils also played a fairly strong defensive game against their rival. Though North Carolina shot 59.6 percent, it turned it over 13 times. Excellent ball pressure on Marcus Paige also helped Duke limit the Tar Heels offense.
Even more impressive than the defensive effort, Duke actually owned the paint over the Heels. North Carolina’s strength is rebounding and inside scoring. Yet on Saturday, Duke out-rebounded North Carolina 34 to 20. Parker, meanwhile, made hey posting up in the low blocks, while Hood repeatedly drove the lane to great effect.
Ultimately, the win over North Carolina showcased the best of what Duke has to offer. When Duke’s offense is firing on all cylinders, it can beat anyone in the country. The problem is that the Blue Devils don’t always play at that high level.
The loss to Wake Forest in the regular season’s second-to-last game exposed Duke’s underwhelming alter ego.
The Demon Deacons scored 82 points despite making just five three-pointers. Duke’s lack of defense was compounded by the fact that the Blue Devils stumbled into 15 turnovers and went 6-of-27 from three. By the final whistle, Duke players were sniping at each other and painting a perfect picture of bad body language.
The defining moment of the all-around atrocious effort by Duke was an extended scoring drought by the Blue Devils. Unfortunately, that is something Duke has become accustomed to.
Duke went on a multiminute drought in loses to Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Clemson and North Carolina. The Blue Devils also went quiet offensively for long spates in narrow wins over Virginia and Maryland. For all the offensive firepower, Duke has a propensity to flame out for long stretches of the game. When that happens, the Blue Devils are vulnerable to even lower-tier teams.
Three of Duke’s seven loses came against teams outside the RPI top 50. Notre Dame and Wake Forest aren’t even in the RPI’s top 100.
Such was Duke’s season; it’d look great for a while and then mar that progress with a spell of inexplicable ineptitude. That maddening lack of consistency made for some harrowing viewing. It also might mean that Duke fans will be forced to watch their team make early exits in the conference and NCAA tournament.
How will Duke's season end?
It’d be easy to argue that Duke figured out the consistency issue after the North Carolina win. After all, in that game Parker offered up enough inside scoring to weather bad shooting stretches. However, we’ve made those proclamations before.
Several times this season the Blue Devils have looked as if they’d gotten their act together. However, Duke repeatedly found itself once again struggling with shooting problems and not being able to sort it out in time to prevent a total collapse.
At this point in the season, it’d be hard to imagine the problems that have persisted all season will suddenly go away.
All in all, Duke is going to have to weather some storms to find tournament success. A bad matchup or a bad shooting night will easily submarine Duke’s title hopes. While there’s no getting around the immense vulnerability, the Blue Devils could just as easily ride a hot streak or favorable draw to some postseason hardware.
At this point, I’m inclined to think Duke has a shot at the ACC tournament so long as it doesn’t find Virginia waiting in the championship game. As for the NCAA tournament, it seems increasingly likely that Duke will do what it did last year and look good right up until it meets a team that’s more dynamic and well-rounded on both sides of the ball.
Of course, it could go another way—for better or worse—but at this point, betting on Duke is a big gamble. The tournaments force teams to push their chips all in, and Duke’s unpredictability means the Blue Devils have to hope for a streak of good deals.