Conference tournaments are an excellent primer for teams looking to make a run at the national title. Duke fell short in the ACC final, but there were plenty of positives to take away from its games in Greensboro. After three ACC tournament games, the picture concerning the Blue Devils’ chances at a fifth NCAA title has a little more clarity.
For starters, all three games really tested Duke. Both NC State and Virginia are tournament teams, and Clemson was close to making the field. So the Blue Devils got good reps in against the level of quality competition they’ll be facing in the NCAAs. Each team also provided a unique challenge that prepared Duke for the sort of obstacles that crop up during March Madness.
Clemson gave Duke a run for its money. The Blue Devils didn’t make free throws and had an all too familiar stretch of poor shooting. That opened the door for the Tigers, who came back from a double-digit deficit to take the lead late.
There was a lot of deja vu in that game. In the loss at Clemson on Jan. 11, Duke had a big lead that was erased by a streak of cold shooting. Another bout of deja vu, however, remedied the situation.
When Duke lost at Notre Dame on Jan. 4, it was trailing in the waning minutes, and Rodney Hood got the ball in his hands. In South Bend, Hood started to drive but opted to kick the ball out to a teammate who missed a shot. Hood made a different decision in Greensboro.
Down one to Clemson, Hood aggressively drove the ball to the basket and scored what turned out to be the game-winning basket. He was assertive and effective insofar as he put himself in a position to get a high-percentage shot or potentially get fouled. That showed real leadership and established a useful format for late-game situations.
Jabari Parker is most effective either on run-outs or when he receives the ball in the post. Final possessions are rarely fast breaks, and opponents will certainly deny an entry pass to Parker on the low block with the game on the line. Hood’s ability to penetrate from the perimeter or, if need be, to pull up for a three makes him an ideal end-of-game option.
The NCAA tournament is full of late-game heroics, so it’s good to know that Hood is capable of coming through and has the confidence to take the reins at critical moments.
The NC State game also aided Duke’s NCAA preparation. The Wolfpack feature one of the nation’s best players in T.J. Warren. Duke was tasked with stopping a premier player without opening a gaping hole for another NC State player to exploit.
The Blue Devils threw different defenders at Warren and made a concerted effort to deny him the ball. Warren finished with 21 points but had to take 22 shots to get them. Meanwhile, no other starter for the Wolfpack scored in double digits.
In the NCAA tournament, even the lower seeds have one spectacular player whom opponents must account for. Duke proved against NC State that its defensive weaknesses have been mitigated enough to at least slow an offensive-minded opponent. That’s an important skill for a team looking to make a tournament run.
Of course, it wasn’t all good news for the Blue Devils. In the ACC final, Duke struggled to score early and found itself trailing the methodically paced Cavaliers. Virginia’s defense troubled Duke, and its offense milked the clock for open shots.
Plenty of teams use that slow style of play, though few run it as effectively as Virginia. Nevertheless, Duke is likely going to come up against teams that will slow the pace in an attempt to stifled the Blue Devils’ potentially potent offense. While Parker looked phenomenal in the ACC title game, his teammates failed to distinguish themselves in the offensive sets.
Ultimately, the loss to Virginia pointed out to two significant problems for Duke going forward. First, Duke’s offense of late hasn’t been nearly as explosive as it was early in the season. And secondly, the Blue Devils have not won a single game where they got in foul trouble.
On the year, Duke averages 78.6 points per game. Unfortunately, Duke has only eclipsed that average once in the last 10 games. In seven of those 10 games, the Blue Devils didn’t even break 70.
This Duke team is less reliant on three-point shooting than Duke teams of the past, but the Blue Devils still need outside shots to fall for the offense to run at full steam. Each of Duke’s conference loses was marked by a scoring drought that sunk the Blue Devils. These extended scoring droughts featured frustrated players settling for jumpers or trying to force their offense.
It seems that once Duke’s high-octane offensive engine misfires, the whole car catches on fire.
How Will Duke's Season End?
One six-minute scoreless stretch in an NCAA tournament game could be all it takes to send Duke home without any hardware. Parker’s ascension should make the Blue Devils offense more reliable, but without a three-point threat, teams can clog up the paint to force him away from the basket. Someone on the perimeter simply must get hot from long range for Duke to make a serious title challenge.
The other troubling tidbit Virginia bore out was that Duke still hasn’t overcome foul trouble. Kansas, Arizona, Syracuse, Wake Forest and Virginia all got wins over the Blue Devils in games that featured a lot of whistles. The easy move is to blame the refs, but the truth is that Duke’s subpar defense constantly puts players in bad positions where they are prone to foul calls.
Defensively, Duke has improved throughout the season. Having said that, as soon as the players pick up a couple of fouls, they revert to the swinging-door defense that plagued Duke during the early part of the year. One player’s reluctance to play aggressive defense puts pressure on the others to pick up the slack, which puts them in situations where they’re more likely to get hit with foul calls.
The whole thing spirals out of control quickly, and all year Duke has not been impressive when faced with adversity. All of the Blue Devils’ loses came away from the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Faced with a hostile crowd and foul trouble, the Blue Devils did not once overcome those factors to secure a win.
In all of Duke’s road or neutral-site wins during the regular season, the margin of victory was 10 or more. The two ACC tournament wins were the only time all year that Duke won by less than double digits away from Durham. So the Blue Devils do not have a habit of getting themselves out of a hole in front of a crowd baying for their blood.
The issue for Duke is that at some point its going to need to pull out a victory when the crowd and calls are going against it. Sadly, Duke hasn't had much success in this regard away from Cameron.
Ultimately, the case for Duke’s title chances comes down to these nagging shortcomings and the many positives that could possibly obscure them.
If Parker can provide reliable inside scoring, then Duke may not need many late-game heroics. If Hood can be a decisive go-to guy down the stretch, then even in tight contests Duke will have someone capable of pulling it through. And if someone can provide a consistent three-point threat, then Duke’s offense won’t be as vulnerable to extended scoring droughts.
If, on the other hand, the Blue Devils continue to be less than stellar when it comes to scoring, their defensive inconsistency, inability to close out close games and failure to overcome foul trouble will cut short a shot at another NCAA championship.