Boy, this Duke basketball team sure is unpredictable. After reeling off seven straight wins, including a highlight victory over rial North Carolina, the Blue Devils dropped consecutive games on the road at Syracuse and Miami this week. Duke had been chasing North Carolina for the ACC regular-season title, but with two straight conference losses they find themselves struggling to even earn a bye for the conference tournament. So what’s the deal with the preseason no. 1 team? Unfortunately, the Blue Devils have continued to decide that they will live and die on the perimeter, particularly with regards to their three-point shooting.
The gravitation towards the three ball has been an ongoing trend in the basketball world in recent years, with the apex perhaps coming last year after Stephen Curry‘s revolutionary season and play from beyond the arc. For Duke, the talent and shooting ability of Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum seems to lend itself to an offensive style of play that is focused on the perimeter. That being said, it has been evident that the Blue Devils often live and die by the three. Against UNC, Duke shot 13-27 from beyond the arc, while against Virginia they shot 9-19 and were bailed out by the brilliant clutch shooting of Tatum.
However in their two consecutive losses, Duke is a brutal 15-54 from deep, including an absurd 33 three point shots. And before you chalk that up to “Oh, well Syracuse runs such a tough zone,” don’t forget that nearly all of Duke’s late offense came from Amile Jefferson as the Blue Devils asserted him inside in the closing moments (Jefferson scored 11 of his 14 points in the last seven minutes of the game). Meanwhile, Grayson Allen would be forced to sit against Miami while still recovering from a sprained ankle, further limiting Duke’s options. The Blue Devils scored just 50 points in their 55-50 loss, as Luke Kennard shot just 6-20 and Jayson Tatum struggled to a 4-16 number (the pair were just 2-13 from deep). Perhaps the more frustrating number, though, is the fact that Jefferson, Harry Giles, and Marques Bolden combined for just 10 field goal attempts in total.
Freshman guard Frank Jackson nearly salvaged a win for Duke with a sensational 16 point, 6 rebound performance, but the Blue Devils couldn’t overcome their inefficiencies. This simply can’t continue for Mike Krzyzewski’s team. It’s a bit confusing as to why he seems to show such reliance on the performance of his backcourt in the midst of what may be Amile Jefferson’s best season. Additionally, there continues to be a lack of faith in getting post touches for Giles and Bolden. Why? There has been almost no evidence to suggest that the frontcourt trio cannot handle the pressures of ACC play (outside of not getting enough playing time). What about Frank Jackson? His dynamism and inside out abilities make him a potential threat offensively, so why not run more sets through him? In this pivotal final stretch, it is imperative that Duke keep Kennard and Tatum fresh by running offensive plays through their posts and making it a mission to score in the paint.
With national powers Florida State and a rematch with North Carolina on the horizon, it’s time for Duke to adjust. A failure to find different ways to score and create away from the perimeter could lead to two more consecutive losses, which would not only put Duke in a poor position for the ACC tournament but also drastically influence their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. With s many questions still swirling around this young and talented team, it’s time to put up or shut up.