With the team much healthier than it was a season ago when seniors Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly were unable to practice while recovering from various ailments, injury isn't what will keep the Blue Devils' top guns off the floor: it's foul trouble.
“It was important because it kind of dictates the way you play," point guard Quinn Cook said about foul woes following Duke's ACC tournament loss to Virginia. "You don’t want to play too antsy with three or four fouls."
Foul trouble has been Duke's nemesis all season. Forward Amile Jefferson was relegated to the bench early in the team's season-opener against Davidson, and Cook's strong game against Arizona was interrupted by early fouls. Conference play spelled trouble for the Blue Devils in the foul department as well—most notably the game played against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, when freshman Jabari Parker, Jefferson and graduate student Andre Dawkins fouled out and were forced to watch from the bench as the Orange eked out a 91-89 overtime win to keep their pristine undefeated record intact.
It's not just one or two players who have been plagued by the foul bug this season, but instead a team-wide epidemic. In 25 games played against either conference foes or nonconference opponents that punched their tickets to the Big Dance, Jefferson, redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood and senior captain Tyler Thornton have been in foul trouble in 12 games apiece. Parker found himself in foul woes in eight of those games, guard Rasheed Sulaimon fell victim to personal fouls seven times, and Dawkins was culpable in committing excess fouls six times. When starters and key rotation players are forced out of games due to foul trouble, it disrupts not only the individual's performance, but the cohesion of the entire team.
“It shouldn’t affect us, but it could make guys not as aggressive as they were at the beginning, just because you don’t want to pick up that fourth foul early in the [second] half, or pick up that third foul in the first half, so it knocks us back a little bit," Jefferson said following the second meeting between Duke and Virginia.
The numbers suggest that fouling has a direct impact on Duke's ability to win games. Of those 25 games against ACC and tournament-bound teams, 11 times the team has committed at least 20 fouls. Of those 11 games, the Blue Devils lost seven. In the team's eighth loss—a 79-77 upset at the hands of Notre Dame—Duke was whistled for 19 fouls. Taking into account the entire season, the Blue Devils have won just 53.3 percent of its games during which the team commits 20-plus fouls.
One must look no further than Duke's loss to Wake Forest for in-game evidence of foul trouble completely altering the course of the contest. Hood was whistled for his fourth foul with 9:28 remaining in the contest having already scored 16 points. He would not appear again in the box score until fouling out eight minutes later. No shots attempted. No rebounds. No assists.
But that wasn't as damning as the evidence presented when Parker was tagged with his fourth foul. The forward sat down with Duke leading 66-61. What transpired immediately upon Parker reaching the bench was a 15-0 Demon Deacon run, ignited by the absence and timidity of the Blue Devils' foul-stricken stars.
The question becomes simple for Duke moving forward: How does it keep its best players out of foul trouble and on the court? The Blue Devils aren't alone in their concern in this area. The third-most whistled team in the ACC, Duke ranks 49th of 68 teams in the original tournament field in fouls committed per game, with the likes of No. 2 seeds Kansas and Villanova and fellow Midwest powerhouse Louisville posting worse foul figures.
Fortunately for Duke, the answer could be as simple as tightening the ship in practice. After Cook noted that the "ticky-tack grabbing stuff" that the referees were calling fouls against Virginia was the same sort of grabbing that was permissible in practice, the officiating became more stringent this week. From here on out, the key is simple, cerebral play.
“Just playing smart," Cook said. "Not getting too physical. You can get caught up in being too physical if it’s been a physical game and the game’s been called closely. You can’t be as physical as you want to be. You have to play smart and play through it.”
With just six games between the Blue Devils and cutting the nets down in North Texas, now is as good a time as any to raise the intelligence level on the court and keep the team's stars on the floor.