Following a tumultuous week in which the Blue Devils lost two games and their sense of ACC invincibility, Duke appears to have exorcised those demons after a comfortable win over Big East minnows St. John's Saturday.
Now, the team has a chance to get back on track in conference play as it takes on Georgia Tech (11-14, 4-7 in the ACC) tonight at 9 p.m. in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The No. 7 Blue Devils (23-3, 10-2) had been flying high in league play, as none of their first 10 opponents kept the final margin within nine points. In back-to-back road trips at Wake Forest and Miami, though, Duke missed open looks and turned the ball over a total of 45 times en route to two losses.
But, the Red Storm's trip to Cameron came just in time for a Blue Devil squad hurting for continuity and confidence.
"I don't know about righting the ship yet, but I think we are on the course of righting the ship," sophomore Brian Zoubek said. "We have not gotten there yet because where we are and where we want to be are two totally different things. Where we need to be in March for the Tournament is a lot better than it is right now."
In the game's first few minutes, St. John's hung right with Duke, even taking a seven-point lead to start the contest. But after freshman Kyle Singler hit a 3-pointer to give Duke an 18-16 lead, the Blue Devils began to hit their stride and extended the margin to 18 by halftime.
Two players who made important contributions Saturday after struggling recently were Zoubek and fellow sophomore Gerald Henderson. Henderson started the game on the bench for the first time this season due to a sprained wrist, but he made an immediate impact upon entering the contest. Henderson's seven straight points in the first half got the team into its rhythm, and he also displayed his high-flying ability with two alley-oop dunks in the second half.
Zoubek, meanwhile, played quite possibly his best game in a Duke uniform. The Haddonfield, N.J. native came into the matchup with the Red Storm averaging just under four points and four rebounds, but exploded for 11 and 13 in 20 minutes of action Saturday. Zoubek showed the emotion and tenacity fans have been clamoring for since his arrival, and he also managed to stay out of the foul trouble that has plagued him throughout his college career.
"I think a big reason [for the improved play] is that I'm learning to just play and not worry about the mistakes or all those little things," Zoubek said. "I've put the extra work in, and I'm coming back into it after the injury, so I feel like as I get more minutes, I'll get more comfortable out there."
With non-conference play now officially over, the Blue Devils return to an ACC slate that includes three games against teams under .500 in the conference before their March 8 matchup with North Carolina.
That schedule begins with tonight's contest against the Yellow Jackets, who have struggled mightily this season. Point guard Javaris Crittenton and forward Thaddeus Young both left Georgia Tech early for the NBA after last season, and the team has had difficulty filling both holes. Since recording its tenth win of the season Jan. 27 at Virginia, the team has lost five of six and fallen out of contention for an NCAA Tournament bid.
To continue moving in the right direction, Duke will have to play the perimeter defense it excelled at early in the season, yet lacked against Wake Forest and Miami. Guard Anthony Morrow leads Georgia Tech in scoring with 14.3 points per game, and freshman starter Maurice Miller sprung for a career-high 29 this weekend against Virginia Tech.
No matter the Yellow Jackets' record, the Blue Devils know that no ACC contest can be overlooked.
"This is going to be high energy, and we just have to attack them instead of letting them attack us, and be prepared for a fight," Zoubek said.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.