In a season that’s seen the young Blue Devils make progress in fits and starts, this past Saturday’s shocking loss at St. John’s represents a nadir for this powerfully gifted, maddeningly inconsistent team to overcome. How did this happen? Duke had looked sharp in its previous start against Notre Dame, and a loss at the Garden to a struggling Red Storm team on an eleven-game losing streak seemed one step removed from impossible. That occurrence appeared no more likely after the Blue Devils took a seven-point lead into the half, but if you looked closely, the signs of a meltdown were present. That meltdown came in earnest, during a sloppy second half in which a lack of creativity and a lax attitude with the ball eventually resulted in eighteen turnovers and an 81–77 loss.
If it all felt a touch fluky, the defeat nevertheless crystallized specific concerns over the team that have taken root since early in the season. An understandably exasperated Coach K termed the result unacceptable and expressed frustration over the effort level demonstrated during the first thirty minutes of the game. Over that stretch, an anemic, uncreative offensive approach paired with an indifferent defensive effort, showcasing a team that bore no resemblance to the Final Four contender the Blue Devils have so frequently teased in recent weeks. A letdown game, on the road against a non-conference opponent, is hardly cause for full-scale hair-on-fire panic. This is a young team, prone to the occasional lapse in focus. On the other hand, come tournament time, it just takes one of these no-shows for your season to be done. And if they can’t get focused for tonight’s matchup with wobbly UNC—well, then we may have a problem.
Duke’s mini-Waterloo was their only game of the week and dropped the Blue Devils out of the top five and all the way to ninth in the AP Top 25. It’s a bad-enough loss that if they wish to retain any aspirations for a number one seed in the Big Dance, they’d better do several things inversely proportional to losing to an 11–13 team in desperation mode. Wins over the Tar Heels and Clemson in advance of the ACC tournament would be the obvious place to start, but in absence of a truly torrid run, the Blue Devils may ultimately need to lower their tournament expectations.
Stop the presses! As of this writing, the loss at St. John’s looks quite a bit better, as the Red Storm followed up their bracing of the Blue Devils by defeating the top-ranked Villanova on the number-one team’s home floor last night! So who knows, maybe St. John’s is now the 1971 UCLA Bruins, and they’ll never lose again. This is impossible to follow. College basketball is Chinatown. In any event, the major component parts of the Blue Devils freshman core of Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter, and Gary Trent Jr. continue to gain familiarity with one another, resulting in wildfire instant offense at any moment, in any game. Combined with a more assertive Grayson Allen at the three-point line, there is not a contest they are ever out of.
As good as the offense has appeared at times, the defense has been exponentially weaker and appears to be getting worse. Duke ranks second in the country in offensive efficiency and forty-eighth in defense. Given the talent level, the inability to play even a semblance of quality man-to-man verges on scandalous. The failure of the Blue Demon’s bigs to cope with ball screens has essentially forced the team into zone full-time, leaving themselves vulnerable the sort hot shooting night that St. John’s used to beat them. Is this fixable? Is it really an effort thing? Whatever the case, opposing squads will recognize defense as Duke’s critical vulnerability, and be more than prepared to exploit it. The first test takes place at the Dean Dome tonight.