Over the course of a recent five-game stretch and deep into the late stages of a sixth one, the Blue Devils appeared capable of doing very little wrong. Following their February 8 loss at UNC, Duke ran off a string of impressive performances during which they vanquished worthy foes with relative ease and appeared to be gelling at precisely the correct time.
On Saturday, a visiting Syracuse team ran into a buzzsaw at Cameron, with a returning Marvin Bagley III racking up nineteen points and appearing none the worse off from his recent knee sprain. In one of their most dominating performances of the year, the Blue Devils never trailed and made the Orange look downright hapless on offense en route to a 60–44 beatdown. It was the fourth straight game that Duke had held an opponent under sixty points, making the puzzling defensive woes of just a few weeks previous seem a distant memory. With their top scorer back in Bagley, key contributions from Wendell Carter, and a suddenly deep bench, the Blue Devils looked for all the world like the best team in the nation.
That momentum was halted on Monday night, as the Blue Devils surprisingly blew a nine-point lead with seven minutes left against Virginia Tech, and were beaten 64–63 on a last second tip-in at Blacksburg. It was a game that the Duke dominated for long stretches, even while committing a sloppy eighteen turnovers and failing to find the offensive rhythm that had keyed their recent win streak. Coach K remarked after the game that he felt his team was tired, and indeed that seemed to be the case as they failed to score a field goal over the last seven minutes of the game. Despite fatigue, mistake-prone play, and off nights from Marvin Bagley and Gary Trent Jr., the Blue Devils still managed to hold off the surging Hokies until the game’s fateful final play.
All in all, a frustrating defeat, but not a particularly alarming one.
The Nitty Gritty
Regardless of Monday night’s result, a lot was going to have to go right for the Blue Devils to be a number-one seed in the NCAA tournament, and it’s possible the loss forecloses that possibility altogether. At this point, a top seed will likely require a victory in the ACC tournament coupled with losses from some higher-ranked teams.
In the meantime, Saturday’s rematch with UNC, followed by the conference tournament in Brooklyn, gives them plenty to concentrate on. As well as they have played of late, it is true that each time this preternaturally gifted group appears on the verge of separating themselves from the pack, some other difficulty surfaces. While clearly still improving, they’d better find a way to bottle the intensity and attention to detail that characterized their recent win streak. Discordant and non-urgent performances like Monday’s are no longer acceptable as the preliminaries give way to the main event.
The Good News
Plenty of good news. Marvin Bagley is back and healthy. After missing four games with a balky knee, the star freshman was his normal, dominating self against Syracuse and had his moments against a Hokies team committed to defending the paint and shutting the Duke post game down. Any lingering concerns about his availability for the postseason appear to be academic. Coach K continues to expand his bench, giving more meaningful minutes to sophomore center Marques Bolden and sophomore forward Jack White. If they can continue to contribute, it should help guard against the tired legs that seemed to afflict the team against Virginia Tech. Improvements on defense appear more and more like the new normal, and at times the team can be downright stifling, a development that would have seemed virtually unthinkable a month back.
The Bad News
With one game remaining in the regular season, it remains an open question as to whether or not Marvin Bagley and Grayson Allen can bring the best out in one another. Allen thrived as a floor general in Bagley’s absence, with the senior guard recapturing his early-season form and looking every bit the long-range assassin Duke has become accustomed to.
With Bagley back, the offense once again felt more diffuse and promptly put up their two lowest point totals of the season. Allen managed twenty-two points against Virginia Tech, but he didn’t look like the same player, shooting just six for eighteen from the field. There is a bit of mystery to why these two haven’t seemed to play their best when they are both on the floor, but it will be well-nigh impossible for this group to realize their championship ambitions without their two best scorers clicking simultaneously.
This is likely the central quandary that will ultimately tell the tale of the Blue Devils’ 2018 campaign. Time is running short to figure it out.