Duke Basketball: Blue Devils' Keys to a Strong Regular Season Finish
Duke Basketball is set to return to action Tuesday after more than a week off, a much-needed break that could help get what's been an uneven 2015-16 season back on track.
The Blue Devils have lost four of their last five games, most recently against the Miami Hurricanes. They are likely to find themselves out of the AP Top 25 Poll for the first time in 168 weeks. None of that will matter if they can put together a good run over the next 10 games, however.
How can that be accomplished? Follow along as we describe Duke's keys to a strong regular-season finish.
Get Amile Jefferson Back
This one is easier said than done, since it will come down to how quickly senior forward Amile Jefferson is able to heal and recover from the foot injury that's kept him out since mid-December. There's no firm estimate on when he'll be able to play again, as he's yet to even set foot on a court to begin getting back into shape.
Jefferson was Duke's top rebounder, at 10.3 per game, and was shooting 68.3 percent with 11.4 points per game before his injury. His absence has forced the Blue Devils to move Brandon Ingram to the four, and while he has developed into their best player, he is not as adept of a rebounder or interior defender as Jefferson was.
His return should provide a huge boost both statistically and in team confidence, though, Duke can't just wait around for that to happen.
"We can win without Amile, and we can with Amile," guard Matt Jones said, per Laura Keeley of the News & Observer. "Right now, we have to win without Amile."
Rest Up Whenever Possible
As long as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski insists on sticking to a six-man rotation, fatigue is going to be a concern. All six main players are averaging at least 25 minutes per game, and in ACC play, that has risen 30-plus for every starter.
That means the Blue Devils have to take advantage of any available chance to rest, whether that be by lessening the intensity of practices during shorter between-game breaks or identifying ways to exert less energy at moments on the court.
Duke will have three days off between Tuesday's trip to Georgia Tech and its next game, at home Saturday against North Carolina State. But then it will play Louisville roughly 51 hours after the NC State game ends. That's one of two short turnarounds left during the regular season, and in January, Duke had two of its worst offensive performances when only getting one day off between games.
Avoid Foul Trouble
The short rotation also means Duke's players have to do whatever they can to stay on the court, which means finding a way to defend without fouling while also maintaining an aggressive offensive approach.
The Blue Devils have turned to both a 2-3 zone and 1-3-1 zone to lessen the chance of fouling, but that's also translated into better scoring opportunities for opponents.
Duke's players are still learning the zone, which is getting implemented between games. The man-to-man defense is Mike Krzyzewski's bread and butter, but it's not doable all the time because of the risk of whistles.
Since Amile Jefferson has been out, seven of the Blue Devils' 10th-worst defensive games (based on defensive rating) have been recorded.
Some defensive aggressiveness is possible, but only if Derryck Thornton is going to be given as many minutes as the rest of Duke's guards and if Chase Jeter and Sean Obi gets used in the frontcourt. Jeter and Obi only seem to get in games when there's a stoppage in play within a minute of a media timeout, allowing Marshall Plumlee or Brandon Ingram to get a brief rest.
Get to the Line
The defensive adjustments Duke has made to handle fatigue and foul trouble should allow for it to save the rest of its energy on offense, but that hasn't been the case. The Blue Devils have looked stagnant at times on that side of the ball, mired in a funk when having to get into a half-court set.
This has resulted in them getting to the line far less often than earlier in the season. The Blue Devils average 25.2 free-throw attempts per game for the season, though, in ACC play they're getting 20.6 foul shots per contest. In three of their last four games, they've had 18 or fewer attempts, including seven at Clemson and eight against Syracuse.
For the year, Duke averages 0.415 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, which ranks 67th out of 351 Division I teams. Duke has to get back to that old level of aggressiveness, while at the same time not getting reckless and picking up offensive fouls.
Pass the Ball
Duke's 80-69 loss to Miami last week reversed a recent trend that had seen it sharing the ball better, which had led to more than half of its field goals coming off assists in five straight games and seven of eight. It's still near the bottom nationally in assist percentage, at 46.9, after assisting on just 8-of-25 makes last time out.
Four of Duke's six main players are dishing out at least two assists per game in ACC play, with Grayson Allen at a team-best 4.0 in the league and 3.7 for the season.
Because there's no definitive point guard, every one of the Blue Devils' guards has to be involved in running the offense and creating for others.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.