ATLANTA—Duke fans expected the Blue Devils' starting lineup to be missing one name when they took the court Sunday against Georgia Tech after news broke earlier in the day that star freshman Marvin Bagley III would miss the game due to a knee sprain injury suffered against North Carolina. 

But the lineup that Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski sent onto the floor had two new faces. Marques Bolden slotted in for Bagley as expected, but Alex O’Connell also stepped in for Trevon Duval, the first time the Blue Devils have altered their starters since the season began. 

“I was told in practice a few days before, so this was something that I had time to prepare for,” O’Connell said. “So I knew that I just had to come out and make an impact sooner than I usually do.”

Duval had struggled recently, going 7-of-24 from the field and committing eight turnovers in the past two games combined, both Duke losses. O’Connell has served as a burst of energy off bench this season, bringing defensive intensity and long range shooting, impressing many with his performances, but Krzyzewski's decision still came as a bit of a surprise. 

The move paid immediate dividends, as the Blue Devils came out locked in defensively against the Yellow Jackets, jumping out to a 9-0 lead and never looking back for the rest of the half. Duke forced seven turnovers in the first half after getting just two against the Tar Heels all game and held Georgia Tech to just 27.6 percent shooting from the floor thanks to a 1-2-2 full-court press and increased energy within its 2-3 zone.

“We’re a really active team in man and zone, but we can get a lot of deflections in zone.” O’Connell said. “We’ve got some real good big guys, so I thought it was just a part of our gameplan, and I think it worked out today in getting us defensive stops and helping us run in transition.”

Defense has been an Achilles’ heel for the Blue Devils this year, as they rank 190th in the country in points allowed per game. But Duke has generally done a good job not giving up easy shots initially, as it is holding opponents to 40.6 percent shooting from the field on the season. The real problem lies in the number of offensive rebounds the team has surrendered despite the fact that the Blue Devils possess a size advantage against almost all their opponents.

That problem reared its head against North Carolina, as the Tar Heels snared 20 offensive rebounds and were able to pull the upset despite shooting just 39.0 percent for the game. 

“Even in the games we’ve lost, teams have shot under 40 percent, but what happens is we give up second shots and we’ve turned it over too much.” Krzyzewski said. “Today, we handled the ball better—we turned it over a couple times late. We still aren’t where I want to be with defensive rebounding.”

Sunday was a step in the right direction, though, as Duke had a slim 44-39 advantage on the boards despite missing Bagley, who averages 11.4 rebounds per game. The Blue Devils were more engaged fighting for rebounds and got solid contributions from guards Gary Trent Jr. and Duval, who grabbed a combined 11 rebounds. 

Duke’s youth has also been a major contributor to its defensive problems, as the freshmen are not used to defending more complex college offenses. Although the growing pains contributed to losses to Boston College and N.C. State, the freshmen are beginning to understand their roles in the 2-3 zone and the importance of communication. 

“When you’re developing individually and asked to develop collectively, you’re going to have your rough spots, but they’ve been good kids, they’ve worked hard,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re thinking and they’re trying, but talk is the lifeblood of a team, especially on the defensive end. Getting a young group to talk and communicate, that’s a challenge all the time, and if they get tired, you get more inward.”

That’s what makes Trent and O’Connell directing traffic and calling out switches in the first half Sunday encouraging for Duke's future. There were a few breakdowns, but the Blue Devils generally limited penetration and forced long jump shots, particularly in the first half. 

Albeit against an overmatched Yellow Jacket squad, Sunday's potential showed the defensive potential of this Duke team and the depth it can have off the bench to bring fresh legs to pressure opponents.

“Duke is good enough to win the national championship.” Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner said. “As much as anyone says about their defense or anything else, they are extremely talented.”