Without veteran leader Amile Jefferson and longtime head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the No. 7 Duke Blue Devils played some of their sloppiest basketball in years en route to a 78-69 loss to the No. 14 Louisville Cardinals.
Louisville's defense has made several strong opposing offenses look silly. The Cardinals held both Purdue and Indiana to season lows in scoring and nearly did the same to Kentucky. And in their first game after allowing Pittsburgh's Jamel Artis to score 43 points, it was a given they would come at Duke with more intensity than usual.
But the Blue Devils didn't help themselves one bit in a game full of careless mistakes, poor ball movement and dreadful defensive rotations.
Sporting News' Sam Vecenie noticed as much:
Duke committed a season-high 18 turnovers, including multiple traveling infractions and one shot-clock violation on which no one on the court appeared to be aware of the dwindling window to shoot. The live-ball turnovers were particularly damning, though, as Louisville turned seven steals into 12 points. And it would have been 14 if Ray Spalding hadn't dribbled the ball off his foot on a fast break.
Equally disturbing on Duke's box score were the eight assists on 22 made field goals. A lack of a true point guard was everyone's biggest concern about this team coming into the season, and an 8-to-18 assist-to-turnover ratio will only further that narrative.
Give credit where it's due, though: Louisville's defense swarmed Duke for 40 minutes. Try as the Blue Devils might to swing the ball around the perimeter or drive the lane before kicking out to an open shooter, the Cardinals had everything covered. Duke has averaged just 8.7 assists in its last three losses, but this had as much to do with Louisville's D as it did with Duke's point guard situation.
But it was the defensive rotations (or glaring lack thereof) that everyone was buzzing about during the game and that led to the Blue Devils' downfall. Louisville used ball screens, down screens and back screens to tear Duke's defense to shreds.
During one stretch of the first half, Louisville scored three straight buckets on alley-oops followed by four consecutive defensive possessions on which Duke committed fouls. The Blue Devils switched to zone to combat their inability to defend the Cardinals in man-to-man, only to have Louisville—which missed its first six three-point attempts of the game—drill back-to-back triples to take a lead it would not relinquish.
And Louisville didn't even play that well on offense in the first half. Once the shots started falling after intermission, the Cardinals threatened to blow it wide open on multiple occasions.
Duke was lazy and erratic with its defensive switches—particularly those involving Harry Giles—and didn't even get a hand up to contest shots late in the game. This prompted ESPN's Jay Bilas to comment at least three times on the possible fatigue factor for the Blue Devils' primary guys.
Struggling to defend the perimeter isn't a new phenomenon for Duke, though.
Two years ago, it was reeling from a second consecutive loss in which its defense was alarmingly awful. After the Blue Devils gave up 90 in a home loss to Miami, Laura Keeley wrote for the News & Observer, "The rate at which Duke’s guards were beat on the perimeter was almost matched by the rate at which the Blue Devils were beat down the floor by the Hurricanes after missed shots on the offensive end."
That team buckled down on defense, effectively added some zone to its repertoire and bounced back to win the national championship. Given the amount of talent on this roster and the preseason expectations surrounding it, there's no reason this team can't do the same, right?
Anything's possible, but there are a ton of fundamental differences between this year's squad and what the Blue Devils had in 2014-15.
First and foremost on that list is the slew of injuries that never seems to end.
Jahlil Okafor missed one game two years ago due to a sprained ankle. Everyone else who played a key role in the tournament appeared in every contest that season—save for Grayson Allen, who had four healthy DNPs as the ninth man in the rotation. It took time for that freshman-heavy team to hit its stride, but at least by mid-January, those guys had two months of in-game familiarity with each other.
Only two Blue Devils on this year's roster have appeared in every game (Luke Kennard and Matt Jones), and Frank Jackson is the only other guy who hasn't missed multiple contests. As a result, this is not a cohesive team on either end. Duke got by for a while on sheer athleticism, but that's not cutting it on the road in the ACC.
Even if the Blue Devils get healthy and stay as such, is there enough time left for everything to come together? Marques Bolden can't make an impact in uptempo games. Giles still looks tentative about his knees on every move. And for as athletically gifted as he is, Jayson Tatum doesn't seem to fit into what Duke wants and needs to do.
NBC Sports' Rob Dauster agrees:
Each of those freshmen missed at least the first several weeks of the season, though, so they're still playing catch-up. Moreover, they're forced to do so without Krzyzewski, who will be out for at least a couple of more weeks while recovering from back surgery.
Let's also consider the differences in on-court "coaching." The 2015 title team had a dual-threat backcourt of senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones—arguably the most NBA-ready freshman point guard since Kyrie Irving. This year's squad is still experimenting with Allen at point guard and doesn't have a plan B.
There are still two months of basketball to be played before the NCAA tournament begins. Based on what the Blue Devils have shown us through the first two months, though, they're barely a candidate to win the 2017 national championship, let alone the overwhelming favorites they were in the preseason.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.