At the start of the season, Duke was a near-unanimous choice to win the ACC.
Now the Blue Devils are teetering on the verge of falling out of the league title race just five games into conference play
A 78-69 loss at Louisville on Saturday afternoon dropped Duke to 2-3 in the ACC, three games back of co-leaders Florida State and Notre Dame in the loss column. The Blue Devils are still in search of their first win this season on an opponent’s home floor, having been smacked around earlier this month at Virginia Tech and Florida State.
A Duke team loaded with proven veterans and McDonald’s All-American freshmen has plenty of talent to make a charge over the next six weeks, but the strength and depth of the ACC will not make it easy. The seventh-ranked Blue Devils still have two games against North Carolina remaining, as well as a rematch with Florida State in Durham and road trips to Notre Dame, Virginia and Miami.
It’s hard to see Duke (14-4) winning enough of those games if it doesn’t take better care of the ball and improve its ball-screen defense. Those were the Blue Devils’ undoing Saturday in their second straight game without injured forward Amile Jefferson.
With no true point guard on their roster, the Blue Devils coughed the ball up a season-high 18 times against Louisville’s aggressive pressure defense, including six by Grayson Allen alone. Many of those turnovers resulted in fast-break chances for the Cardinals, enabling them to score before the Duke defense was set.
Even when Duke managed to force Louisville to run half-court offense, the Blue Devils’ awful ball-screen defense led to numerous open looks and easy baskets.
Jefferson’s absence was glaring as sophomore Chase Jeter and heralded freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden each frequently looked lost and struggled to properly hedge and recover. It was Louisville’s game plan to take advantage of Duke’s interior inexperience, and it worked repeatedly from start to finish.
In the first half, mobile Louisville 7-footer Anas Mahmoud rolled to the rim unguarded time after time for wide-open dunks. In the second half, guard Donovan Mitchell caught fire from behind the arc despite rolling his ankle and limping off the floor with 13 minutes to play. Those two combined for 32 points for the 14th-ranked Cardinals, who won for the third straight time since an 0-2 start to ACC play.
Duke never trailed by more than 10 in the second half, but the Blue Devils also never made any semblance of a serious late-game push either. Allen scored 23 points and Luke Kennard had an efficient 17, but this was a nightmarish day for Duke’s four prized freshmen.
Giles was mostly a non-factor on offense and lacked the lateral quickness on defense that was one of his strengths before his most recent knee surgeries.
Jayson Tatum hit just 3 of 11 shots, too often showing a lack of feel for where help defense would come from.
Frank Jackson missed 4 of 5 shots in just 10 minutes of playing time and Bolden only escaped the bench for five minutes despite Jefferson’s absence.
Duke’s chances of living up to its preseason hype now depend on Jefferson recovering quickly from his latest foot injury and the Blue Devils’ heralded freshmen making strides at both ends of the floor. Tatum must get more efficient. Jackson must get more consistent. Giles and Bolden cannot both be such liabilities on ball-screen defense.
Two years ago, Duke recovered from a three-loss January, improved dramatically on defense and went on to win the national championship. Last year, the Blue Devils bounced back from a 4-4 start to conference play to finish a respectable 11-7 and reach the Sweet 16.
This year’s team has too much talent not to rally too, but the road to an ACC title may now be too steep.
– – – – – – –