While watching the closing moments of Virginia’s 75-60 road demolition of North Carolina Sunday, I couldn’t help but feel a little elated about the hard times that have befallen Duke’s arch rival eight miles down 15-501.
After dropping their third straight league game at the Dean Dome, the 13-8 Tar Heels are on pace for their worst season peformance since 2001-2002, when they went 8-20 and were beaten three times by the Blue Devils. After all, with Duke on top of the ACC and North Carolina grasping for the bottom rungs of the conference ladder, isn’t it only natural for Blue Devil fans to be indulging in a little bit of schadenfreude in light of the Tar Heels’ travails?
Unfortunately, Georgetown’s 89-77 evisceration of Duke in the nation’s capital gives great pause to any such impulse. Without a doubt, misery has company along Tobacco Road, as the Blue Devils failed to pass the test Saturday in their most high-profile contest of the season.
With President Obama seated at courtside, the Blue Devils simply had no answer for a Georgetown fast-break attack that finished with an astounding 71.7 shooting percentage from the floor. And when Obama donned a headset and joined the CBS broadcast crew during the second half, his analysis of how Georgetown was successfully contesting Jon Scheyer’s shot attempts proved to be spot-on. But it wasn’t just Scheyer—who went 5-of-13 from the field—who couldn’t find an open look, as both Nolan Smith (6-for-16 shooting) and Kyle Singler (4-of-14) struggled to find easy shots against an airtight Hoya defense.
At the end of the game, perhaps the most embarrassed Blue Devil in the building was presidential aide and former Duke player Reggie Love, who was mentioned by Obama at the end of the broadcasting cameo as the person who probably had the “worst case of nerves this afternoon” about his former team’s lackluster showing.
But ultimately, you don’t have to be a President or former player to see just how badly Duke struggled against Georgetown and how that performance underlines some disturbing trends that don’t bode well for the Blue Devils as the season approaches March. The striking thing is that a pair of these difficulties are shared by the Tar Heels.
Just like North Carolina, Duke struggles to defend against strong, quick guards on the perimeter. After allowing Virginia’s Sylven Landesberg to go off for 29 points Sunday, North Carolina has now seen five ACC guards light them up for 20 or more points this season. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, allowed both of Georgetown’s starting guards—Chris Wright and Austin Freeman—to hit or eclipse the 20-point plateau, in addition to former Duke recruit and current Duke killer Greg Monroe. It’s evident that the Blue Devils are sorely missing a defensive ace that has the necessary agility and defensive length to hedge off penetration and aggressively contest shot attempts from opposing guards.
Elliot Williams showed great potential toward the tail end of last season as someone who could fill that role for Duke, but it’s now abundantly clear that the Blue Devils lost more than just depth when Williams opted to transfer to Memphis this summer.
Additionally, just like North Carolina, Duke is still waiting on key underclassmen to fill offensive voids at their positions. For the Tar Heels, the offensive struggles of sophomore guard Larry Drew II and freshman guard Dexter Strickland have been a significant reason why the team ranks in the bottom half of the ACC in points per game, assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. Although Duke’s young contributors are not struggling to the same extent, the frontline duo of sophomore Miles Plumlee and freshman Mason Plumlee must find more ways to score inside in order to take offensive pressure off the big three of Scheyer, Singler and Smith. Against Georgetown, that trio took 69.3 percent of Duke’s shots and scored 70.1 percent of their team’s points.
Whether the production emerges from post skills honed in practice or by an increase in designed plays that put the Plumlees in better position to score, the Blue Devils need more production from down low. Williams’s emergence around this time last season was spurred by an excellent showing in practice, proving that it’s not too late for the Plumlees to find their offensive groove this year.
The game against Georgetown might be the closest simulation Duke has had all year to the caliber of opponent it would likely face in a Sweet 16. It’s also the last such matchup the Blue Devils will encounter for the remainder of the season. Usually, the Tobacco Road rivalry matchup with the Tar Heels fits this paradigm, but with North Carolina’s struggles this season, that won’t be the case when the two teams square off in eight days at the Dean Dome.
But still, let’s be real: On that one day, Duke fans can take full pleasure in their rivals’ pain without thinking twice.
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