Blue Zone

HALFTIME: Duke 27, Syracuse 16

The biggest story of the first half was the return of Marvin Bagley III, who had missed the previous four games with a right knee sprain. And although he did not get the start, the star freshman announced his presence in a big way with a series of electrifying dunks in Duke’s strong first-half performance.

Bagley and the No. 5 Blue Devils lead the Orange 27-16 at halftime at Cameron Indoor Stadium behind another strong defensive start for one of the best offensive teams in the nation. Bagley and classmate Wendell Carter Jr. have combined for 20 points and nine rebounds so far—Bagley leads the way with 14—and have looked impressive across from each other down low in Duke’s zone defense. 

In the third start of his career, Javin DeLaurier, who started in front of Bagley, opened the scoring for Duke on a neat putback on the Blue Devils’ opening possession. Although Duke went cold offensively for the first few minutes of the half, starting 1-of-5 from the field, Bagley’s first bucket back and then a breakaway dunk off a steal by Grayson Allen five minutes into the game got the offense going to open an early 12-6 lead.

One of the most significant trends for the Blue Devils in their four-game winning streak has been defense—since losing on the road at North Carolina, Duke has held its opponents to just 58.5 points per game, the ninth-fewest in the NCAA during that stretch. Saturday started no different for the new-look Blue Devils, who held Syracuse to only four field goals in the opening 10 minutes of the game, and just a 27.6 percent shooting percentage in the half. 

Outside of his emphatic steal and breakaway dunk in the first five minutes of the game, Allen struggled to get going on offense for much of the half after posting his best scoring numbers of the season during Duke’s past four games. Allen finished the half with two points on 1-of-6 shooting from the field and 0-of-5 from behind the arc. 

Things to watch in the second half:

  • Duke’s new tough defense has showed up so far for the fifth game in a row, as the Blue Devils have forced Syracuse into nine turnovers.
  • Duke has not shot well from the field but is taking good care of the ball, committing just four turnovers so far. 
  • Both teams were ice cold from deep in the first half, shooting a combined 0-for-20 from beyond the arc. The Blue Devils were shooting just under 40 percent from the perimeter entering Saturday’s game.

Key Three: Can Duke contain the Orange's red-hot guards?

Contain the Guards

Over the past few years, Duke has struggled to contain athletic guards, especially on dribble penetration. Unfortunately, the Orange are equipped with a dynamic backcourt duo in Tyus Battle and Frank Howard. Battle is third in the ACC in scoring, averaging over 20 points per game. He also dropped a 26-point outing in a near upset against North Carolina on Wednesday. Howard also has been on a tear of his own over the last five games averaging 18 points and five assists while shooting 44 percent from deep. Between the two, they generate over half of Syracuse’s offense; if you shut them down, you shut down the Orange.

Win the Turnover Battle

Over the course of the season, Duke has seemed to alternate between taking excellent care of the ball and sloppy, careless play. Against the Orange, there is no margin for error. Syracuse is tied for second in the ACC in steal percentage, with both Howard and Battle in the top five in the ACC in steals. At the same time, Syracuse does a good job taking care of the ball, with the fourth fewest turnovers in the conference. Unless Duke shoots the lights out, if they lose the turnover battle, they lose the game. 

Limit Offensive Rebounds

In the Duke’s heartbreaking loss against North Carolina, a large part of their undoing was allowing far too many easy scoring opportunities off of offensive rebounds. Syracuse is the third best offensive rebounding team in the ACC, sitting just below Duke and North Carolina in the leaderboard. Recently Syracuse has been trotting out an enormous starting lineup that features three players 6-foot-8 or taller including the seven-foot-2 Paschal Chukwu who is sixth in the ACC in offensive boards. Boxing out and ending opposing possessions after the first shot will be vital both against Syracuse and in March. 

Duke in the NBA: Irving, Tatum shine in respective All-Star Weekend events

After an exciting NBA All-Star Weekend, the Blue Zone takes a look at how Duke’s representatives fared in the events.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: 

Tatum was one of three former Blue Devils selected to participate in the All-Star Weekend events. Along with fellow Duke product Brandon Ingram, Tatum was named to the Team USA roster for the Rising Stars Challenge, a game which pits the best up-and-coming American players against those born internationally.

Led by scoring outbursts by Sacramento Kings guards Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic, Team World cruised to a 155-124 victory over Team USA. Tatum played more minutes than any other player in the game, a testament to the level of respect he has gained around the league. He put up a solid performance, but was somewhat overshadowed by his Celtics teammate Jaylen Brown, who scored a game-high 35. Tatum finished with 15 points to go along with four rebounds and a pair of steals in what looks to be his first of many appearances at All-Star Weekend.

Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics: 

Irving put on a show in Los Angeles as he helped lead Team LeBron to a 148-145 win against Team Stephen in the 67th annual NBA All-Star Game. Paired with his former teammates Kevin Love and LeBron James and competing against his current Celtic teammate Al Horford, Irving scored 13 points, dished out nine assists, and grabbed seven rebounds.

The game marked the first time that the All-Star Game would not feature the traditional Eastern Conference versus Western Conference format. Instead, LeBron James and Stephen Curry were selected to be team captains and assembled their teams from the pool of players named all-stars. The change was well-received, and fans and players alike were glad to see a higher level of competitiveness on display Sunday night. Last year’s game, which ended in a 192-182 Western Conference victory, was rightfully criticized for being nothing more than an alley-oop showcase with essentially zero defensive effort. This year, the game came down to the wire and Irving’s 4th quarter scoring was a key factor in the win. In an All-Star first, the game was actually won on a defensive play as a James-Durant double team managed to prevent Team Stephen from getting the tying shot off at the buzzer.

Irving and the Celtics will be back to regular-season action Friday night when they visit the Detroit Pistons.

Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers:

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics make up the most storied rivalry in professional basketball, but the bond between members of the Duke brotherhood is perhaps just as powerful. Friday night, Ingram and Jayson Tatum put aside their team allegiances and played together for Team USA in the Rising Stars Challenge. Ingram, who struggled in his rookie season, has become an integral part of the Lakers offense and is a major reason why his team is only three victories away from equaling last season’s entire win total. In his last five games, the 20-year-old has scored 21.0 points per game, and is up to 16.2 points per game for the

season. Ingram only played 12 minutes in the Rising Stars Challenge, but scored eight points on an efficient 4-of-6 shooting night.

The Lakers will host the Dallas Mavericks in a nationally-televised matchup Friday night.

Beyond the arc: Grayson Allen and smothering defense lead Duke to blowout win

Make it four straight—Duke cruised to another home victory Wednesday, easily taking down Louisville 82-56. The Blue Zone gives three key takeaways and stats from the win and looks forward for the Blue Devils: 

Three key takeaways: 

1. Really in the zone

If you had doubts about Duke's zone defense still going into Wednesday's contest, fair enough. The Blue Devils had found success in three straight games, sure, but the sample size was still small enough to have questions about whether they could keep it up for the long run. Now, Duke has successfully confused—its defensive fingerprint is currently listed as "inconclusive"—and for the first time in the shot clock era, the Blue Devils have held three straight ACC opponents to 60 points or fewer.

2. Is Grayson Allen the best player in the country right now?

Maybe so. Duke's senior captain showed what he was capable of in the third game of the season against Michigan State, but since then, it was middling performance after middling performance. Coach K didn't want to call it a slump, yet the numbers said otherwise. With nearly 24 points per game in the Blue Devils' last four contests, though, it's fair to argue that no player in the country is more dangerous than Allen right now. He's found his game with the ball in his hands and Marvin Bagley III off the floor—and while it remains to be seen if that changes upon Bagley's return, teams are going to have to find a way to slow Duke's most experienced player down in the meantime.

3. Lots of options

Although the margin was substantial for most of the second half, the Blue Devils are showing that they have a deeper team that some might have thought given their lack of rotation earlier in the season. Yes, four of Duke's starters played at least 30 minutes last night, but between starter Javin DeLaurier and subs Marques Bolden, Jack White and Alex O'Connell, the Blue Devils got 19 points and 19 boards in 57 minutes of play. Even if Bagley returns soon, it might be good to let him work his way back in and let some of Duke's talented reserves keep up their groove from the bench.

Three key stats: 

1. 44 rebounds and a +14 margin on the glass

In the early minutes of the game, the Cardinals appeared to have a chance to hang around thanks to their length and size, even prompting one reporter to note the following:

From there, the Blue Devils dominated the boards, and although no player logged a double-double against Louisville, it was a team effort—five different players grabbed at least five rebounds led by nine from Wendell Carter Jr.

2. Allen's 15 3-point attempts

A few weeks back, Allen noted that Coach K was telling him to "hunt his shot," even when it wasn't going down consistently. In Duke's four-game win streak, the senior has now taken 40 attempts from beyond the arc, but has hit 16 of them including six more last night. Even though Gary Trent Jr. knocked down just one on four tries, a pair of dangerous shooters will only open up the floor even more for the Blue Devil offense.

3. Four Cardinal starters go 11-of-33 from the field

Ray Spalding notched a double-double, sure. But the Duke defense killed the rest of Louisville's offense as the Cards could get nothing going. And big man Anas Mahmoud struggled to find any rhythm with fouls on the other end as he finished with only two points on the night.

Looking forward:

The Blue Devils have just two home games remaining this season, the first which comes Saturday against Syracuse. The Orange dropped a close contest to North Carolina in upstate New York earlier Wednesday night, but have the length to potentially slow down Duke inside. The hosts will look to get closer to an ACC tournament double-bye—the Blue Devils can guarantee a Thursday night contest in Brooklyn with wins Saturday evening and Monday in Blacksburg, Va.

HALFTIME: Duke 42, Louisville 25

Playing without their leading scorer and biggest interior presence in Marvin Bagley III for the fourth consecutive contest, the Blue Devils continued to rely on Grayson Allen for the bulk of their offensive production in a dominant first half.

No. 5 Duke entered the locker room with a 42-25 lead against the Cardinals following another strong shooting performance from Allen and a strong interior showing by its big men.  

Entering the game with an average of 22.3 points in three contests without Bagley, the Blue Devils' senior captain came out of the gates hot with 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting in the first 20 minutes.

After Duke missed its first three shots attempt to start the contest, Allen and Gary Trent Jr. drained back-to back-shots from beyond the arc to give the team an early 10-4 lead, thanks in part to a pair of steals by freshman Trevon Duval. 

Louisville would take advantage of its interior size, however, relying on 6-foot-11 junior Ray Spalding to cut the Duke lead down to one at 16-15 with 11:14 left in the half. Spalding led the Cardinals with 10 points and six rebounds in the first half. On the other hand, leading scorer Deng Adel has struggled to make an impact, scoring just two points.

Even without Bagley, the Blue Devils still have three players taller than 6-foot-11 in the lineup, and they switched to dominate the interior. Duke played through its big men, using putback dunks by Wendell Carter and Javin DeLaurier to spark a 22-6 run that extended the lead to 42-21 with less than two minutes to play.

DeLaurier was productive in just his second career start Wednesday, pouring in five points and six rebounds in one of his more productive offensive halves of the season. The Shipman, Va., native also did a good job of staying out of foul trouble, and area where he has struggled, committing just one in 12 minutes.

Carter has been the only Blue Devil to join Allen in double figures so far, scoring 10 points.

Things to watch in the second half:

  • Duke shot 51.5 percent from the field, but just 37.5 percent from the three-point line.
  • After starting the half 4-for-6 from the field, Allen made only one of his next five shots.
  • Both teams are struggling a bit with turnovers, each committing eight giveaways.

Key Three: Can Duke sustain recent defensive success against Louisville?

Coming off a statement win against then-No. 11 Clemson Sunday, No. 5 Duke returns home to face Louisville Wednesday night in the first game of a two-game homestand. The Blue Zone gives three keys to victory for the Blue Devils.

Keep the defense rolling

The most obvious weakness with this season's Duke team has been clear throughout the campaign: defense. The Blue Devils have one of the most talented offenses in the nation yet they've struggled to develop any sort of consistent cohesion on the other end of the floor. However, that narrative has changed in Duke’s past three games, particularly in back-to-back performances against Virginia Tech and Clemson in which the Blue Devils held their opponents to under 60 points. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s new 2-3 zone defense seems to have turned around a team that many thought would be doomed by poor discipline on the defensive end.

Wednesday’s home matchup against Louisville will be the perfect opportunity for Duke to prove that this renewed defensive focus is here to stay. Deng Adel returned for the Cardinals last week in their loss to North Carolina, and will present a challenge for the Blue Devils down low in the frontcourt alongside fellow forward Ray Spalding, who had his ninth double-double of the season against the Tar Heels. It hasn’t been announced yet whether Marvin Bagley III will be suiting up for Duke, but if he does, it will be interesting to see how he fits into a new defensive scheme down low that has blossomed while he has been sidelined with a mild knee sprain.

Take care of the ball

Since giving the ball up 18 times against St. Johns, the Blue Devils have done a good job of taking care of the basketball, exceeding 12 turnovers in just one of their four games since, when they gave up 13 against Virginia Tech. Duke has averaged just 12.2 turnovers per game, but will have to be particularly careful with the ball against the Cardinals.

No team in the ACC has averaged more steals in conference games than Louisville, which has collected nearly eight per contest. The Cardinals had eight takeaways in their loss to North Carolina, and have reached at least nine steals seven times in conference play. Further, Louisville is not prone to giving the ball up themselves, ranking just better than the Blue Devils in turnovers at 11.9 per game. For Duke to avoid a shocking home upset, it will need to make sure it doesn’t suffer any lapses in ball control against a team that has proven it will jump on an opponent’s carelessness.

Create open looks in the lane

Louisville ranks third in the nation in blocked shots, thanks largely to Adel and Spalding, as well as senior forward Anas Mahmoud, who is eighth in the nation in blocks per game with 3.08. As a team, the Cardinals have blocked 6.5 shots per game, and recorded six blocks against North Carolina.

The Blue Devils have also been a force in the paint all season, led by Bagley and fellow freshman Wendell Carter, Jr. If Bagley is absent again Wednesday, sophomore Marques Bolden will likely join Carter matching up against Louisville’s formidable frontcourt. Given the chance to play more in Bagley’s absence, Bolden has not made a huge impact offensively, but came up with some clutch plays towards the end of Sunday’s win against Clemson. If Duke can continue its success in the paint and overcome Spalding, Adel and Mahmoud, the chances for a Cardinals upset are slim.

X Factor: Can Gary Trent Jr. continue his red hot shooting against Louisville?

After winning three straight, Duke and its defense seem to be peaking at the right time. In their last two wins, the Blue Devils shut down both Virginia Tech and Clemson, marking the first time since 2015 that they have held two consecutive conference opponents to fewer than 60 points. 

Duke will welcome Louisville to Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday at 9 p.m. The Blue Zone gives one player from each team that could be the difference in the game: 

Duke: Guard Gary Trent Jr.

Louisville is a very strong defensive team, but has been relatively more vulnerable from beyond the arc than inside the paint. That could open the door for Trent to continue his hot shooting. Although the freshman was a little off against Clemson, he has still shot nearly 50 percent from long range in conference play.

If Trent can get back on his tear, he and Grayson Allen could continue to be a two-headed monster beyond the arc. If the Blue Devils want come away with a win, they will have to be strong from downtown, especially if Marvin Bagley III remains out of the lineup with knee sprain.

Louisville: Forward Ray Spalding

Duke’s newly-minted matchup zone defense has helped it nail down opposing 3-point shooters. But it wasn't quite as strong against post players against Clemson. Six-foot-9 forward Elijah Thomas was efficient in scoring 13 points and grabbing 15 boards for the Tigers Sunday, helping them outrebound the Blue Devils. 

A 6-foot-10 forward nearly averaging a double-double, Spalding could be a similar force for the Cardinals Wednesday. Spalding is fresh off a sparking performance against UNC in which he dropped 18 points and pulled down 12 rebounds, and will look to continue that momentum against Duke. 

Thoughts on the AP poll: Duke rises all the way to No. 5 after week of carnage

The bottom fell out of the top 10 this week, with seven teams losing at least one game, and Duke took full advantage as one of the biggest risers. The Blue Zone recaps another AP poll shakeup.

Michigan State stays put after roaring past Wildcats

In a week full of surprising losses, the second-ranked Spartans looked like they were well on their way to the most stunning result yet when they fell behind 43-16 at Northwestern Saturday afternoon. They still trailed by 21 with less than 17 minutes left in the game, but put the clamps down on defense to hold the Wildcats scoreless for more than 11 minutes during a 24-0 run to take the lead. Michigan State wound up outscoring Northwestern 38-11 in the second half of their 65-60 win.

The Spartans remained at No. 2 with a number of first-place votes, still sitting behind top-ranked Virginia, which won a tough road contest at Miami this week.

Duke skyrockets with key road win

The Blue Devils did just fine in two games without Marvin Bagley III this week, blowing out Virginia Tech at home and then outlasting Clemson in a physical top-15 matchup Sunday afternoon on the road. The Tigers went on a 10-0 run to tie the game with less than two minutes left, but Duke answered with a 9-0 run to close it out, sparked by three free throws from Gary Trent Jr.

Duke jumped from No. 12 all the way to No. 5, capitalizing on losses by Cincinnati, Purdue, Texas Tech, Ohio State, Auburn and formerly No. 11 Clemson. North Carolina became the third ACC team to join the Blue Devils and Virginia in the top 10, moving up to No. 10 on the heels of a five-game winning streak.

Villanova rebounds with top-five victory

Mired in a bit of a slump with two losses in their previous three games, Villanova responded with a convincing 95-79 road win at Xavier Saturday in a matchup of the No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the country. The Wildcats shot 16-of-34 from 3-point range in the victory and kept themselves in contention for the Big East regular-season title.

The win helped Villanova stay put at No. 3 despite a road loss at Providence earlier in the week, and the Musketeers did not suffer too much either thanks to the carnage beneath them, staying put at No. 4.



1. Virginia

2. Michigan State

3. Villanova

4. Xavier

5. Duke

6. Texas Tech

6. Gonzaga

8.  Kansas

9. Purdue

10. North Carolina

11. Cincinnati

12. Auburn

13. Wichita State

14. Arizona

15. Clemson

16. Ohio State

17. Michigan

18. Rhode Island

19. Tennessee

20. Nevada

21. West Virginia

22. Saint Mary's 

23. Houston

24. Middle Tennessee

25. Florida State

Take of the week: Despite success, Duke is not better without Bagley

Every week, the Blue Zone will make a take on college basketball. This week's hot take is in from staff writer Andrew Levy, refuting recent claims that Duke is a better team without its top recruit in the lineup.

I do not think this team is better without Marvin Bagley III. This is not a case of the Ewing theory, Bill Simmons’ theory where a team plays better without its star player. Bagley is a top-five player in college basketball and before his absence the Blue Devils had the second most efficient offense in KenPom history. However, while Duke is not a better team without him, Bagley’s time off has helped reorient the Blue Devils for better success when he returns. 

Since Bagley has been out, Grayson Allen has been the primary ball handler for Duke. Allen’s usage rate this year and his player efficiency rating during conference play have both been the lowest of his career. Since Bagley’s injury, both Allen’s usage rate and efficiency rating have gone up a full point. Against North Carolina the Jacksonville, Fla., native attempted just one shot in the paint and only two free throws. In the three games since Bagley’s knee injury, Allen has been more aggressive offensively, averaging about three shots in the paint and six free throws per game. 

With Bagley out of the starting lineup, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has been able to tinker with the lineups and give more minutes to his bench. With Trevon Duval struggling, Krzyzewski initially went with the starting lineup that included Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell. Bolden, who is second on the team in block percentage, has given Duke an extra defensive presence with his increase in minutes. With the shift to zone defense, Krzyzewski has relied more on Jack White and Javin DeLaurier for key minutes for the low wing positions in the zone. Since Bagley’s absence, Duke has jumped from 78th to 41st in KenPom’s adjusted defense rankings. 

The removal of Bagley from the lineup has given an increased confidence to the players around him. Allen has been much more aggressive without him in the rotation. Duval has since returned to the starting lineup and has been much improved, cutting down on his turnovers and even chipping in with 12 points against Clemson. The role players also have been given a chance to develop in time for both the ACC and NCAA tournament. Considering all the development behind the scenes for Duke, the injection of Bagley back into the lineup should give an added boost to a team on the rise, not regress the team back to its state before his injury.

Beyond the arc: Duke rides Allen, strong defense to its biggest road win of the season

After falling to North Carolina, No. 12 Duke has now rattled off three straight wins with a 66-57 victory at No. 11 Clemson Sunday. The Blue Zone gives three key takeaways and stats from the win and looks forward for the Blue Devils: 

Three key takeaways: 

1. Duke can handle playing on the road 

Heading into Sunday’s contest, there were serious questions as to whether Duke could handle playing on the road. The Blue Devils looked rattled after consecutive road losses to St. John’s and North Carolina, but they stepped up in a hostile environment against the Tigers. 

Duke had every chance to fold late—it squandered a 10-point lead, leaving it facing a tie at the two-minute mark. But the young Blue Devils stood tall, finishing the game on a 9-0 run to come away victorious even with the crowd roaring at Littlejohn Coliseum. Duke has just one regular season road game left, at Virginia Tech Feb. 26. 

2. Blue Devil defense is for real 

Ever since Duke transitioned to a matchup zone defense Wednesday against Virginia Tech, it has looked like an entirely different unit. The Blue Devils have allowed an average of under 55 points per game against two strong offensive teams in the Hokies and Tigers. 

Certainly, Duke’s scoring has gone down as well, but head coach Mike Krzyzewski must be thrilled about the turnaround his once-shoddy defense has undergone. The Blue Devils will have to keep up this pace if they want to have a chance to make a deep run in March. 

3. Duke can win without Bagley

With Marvin Bagley III on the floor this season in conference play, Duke has given up nearly 74 points per game on average. In the last three games without him, the Blue Devils have yielded fewer than 60 per game. Certainly, the offense has taken a dip, dropping about 10 points per game, but Duke has netted four points per game better without him. 

The Blue Devils have been playing a different style on offense, allowing more space on the floor for Grayson Allen to work and get out of his slumber. Although Bagley being out might not be what Duke fans want, so far, it has produced better results for Duke. 

Three key stats: 

1. 22-of-26 from the line

Duke got to the line early and often, and didn’t squander its opportunities. Despite struggling at times from the charity stripe this season, Blue Devils missed just four free throws. Gary Trent Jr. nailed three in a row in the closing minutes to seal the deal. 

2. 19 points from Allen

With Bagley off the floor, Allen has had more room to operate as an offensive threat, and he has certainly cashed in on that opportunity. Although he was quiet in the second half, he finished the game with 19 points to lead Duke. 

3. Marcquise Reed shoots 3-of-14 from the floor

Duke came into Sunday knowing it would need to shut down Reed, and it did just that. The Tigers' leading scorer finished just 3-of-14 from the field, including 1-of-6 from deep. As a team, Clemson shot just 25 percent from the floor. 

Looking forward:

This can only be seen as one of the biggest wins of the year for Duke. 

Even without Bagley, it overcame its road demons and locked in on defense. The Blue Devils are at the best position they have been in all season: in control on both sides of the floor. A sweep of the rest of the regular season schedule could very well be in store.