Nearly halfway through conference play, Duke is sitting at 18-6 overall and 7-4 in ACC play. The team has turned it around after hitting a rough patch and appears to have hit its stride with big matchups against Virginia, North Carolina and Louisville looming. The Chronicle's men's basketball beat writers take a look at the storylines surrounding the Blue Devils.
After losing four of five games, Duke has won three straight games, including their first win against a ranked opponent Monday against Louisville. What has been the biggest improvement for the team in this recent stretch?
Ryan Hoerger: The improved play of Derryck Thornton has helped spark this team. Inserted back into the starting lineup Feb. 2 at Georgia Tech after several games coming off the bench, Thornton scored 15 points against the Yellow Jackets, followed by excellent defense on Anthony "Cat" Barber for most of the first half Feb. 6 against N.C. State. The freshman didn't score much Monday against Louisville, but hit a critical shot late in the shot clock to push the lead to eight with less than a minute to go. With Thornton starting, the Blue Devils have a more natural point guard on the floor, allowing guards Grayson Allen and Matt Jones to look for their shot rather than be creators and primary ball-handlers. It also creates a nice role for Luke Kennard coming off the bench as a pure scorer—not many teams have a guy that can go off for 30 points sitting with his warm-up on when the game tips off.
Meredith Cash: As the season has progressed, the freshmen have really gotten accustomed to playing within their roles and, as a result, they have been able to finish out games. Forward Brandon Ingram has proven that he can be this team's go-to guy down the stretch, and Kennard, Thornton and Allen have learned how to efficiently divide ball handling responsibilities.
Jack Dolgin: I'm going to look at a different aspect than Meredith and Ryan here. Duke was outrebounded in each game during the losing streak. But they have turned things around and outrebounded four of their last five opponents—including Monday night in a 72-65 win against the No. 9 rebounding team in the country. Cleaning up the glass was always going to be difficult without senior Amile Jefferson, but the Blue Devils' improvement has led to success in recent games.
Brian Pollack: The most evident difference for Duke has been the most obvious one—their shots are falling. In that early season skid, the Blue Devils struggled to connect from downtown and lost a lot of its offensive flow as Allen, Ingram and Kennard seemed to lose confidence in their shots. In these last four games, however, that trio has turned it around and is scoring the ball like we've grown accustomed to. This team is built around perimeter scoring, so when its key players can't get going from the outside, a lot of other things collapse as well.
Sameer Pandhare: To me, it comes down to experience. People seem to forget that three of Duke's four conference losses came down to the final possession and the Blue Devils fourth loss came against a Miami team that is undefeated at home in ACC play and beat Duke's national title time handily a year ago. In the last couple games, the Blue Devils have looked more steady down the stretch and worked to find better shots rather than jack up available threes. Whether the answer is having Ingram man the point or playing Thornton to close the game, the coaching staff seems to have figured out the way they want to end games and the results have shown.
Outside of Allen and Ingram—Duke's two leading scorers—which Blue Devils play will be the biggest key to the team's success in the second half of conference play?
RH: With only a six-, sometimes seven-man rotation, pretty much everyone is a big key. I know I just spent a full paragraph heaping praise on Thornton, but I'm going to go with Jones. After reaching double-figures in 12 of the team's first 15 games, the junior has done so just once in his last eight, averaging just 6.9 points per game in that stretch. The Blue Devil offense will continue to flow through Allen and Ingram, but their ability to drive the lane opens up threes on the perimeter, and Jones has gone cold even as Duke has turned its season around. He's made just 16 of his last 52 triples—around 31 percent, which is nearly a full 10 percent below his mark for the season. If Jones heats up again from downtown, the Blue Devils will have four incredibly potent long-range shooters.
MC: Kennard. When he's shooting well and becomes a liability for opposing defenses, the entire Duke offense opens up and seems to find a rhythm. The Franklin, Ohio native's ability to rebound and defend at his position makes him a key two-way player that is capable of changing games off the bench for the team.
JD: Thornton, who's back in the starting lineup and playing like he deserves it. The freshman stood out against Georgia Tech last week and is driving to the basket with newfound confidence. The guard has also stepped up defensively of late and taken on a pair of tough guards in Barber and Louisville's Quentin Snider. If he continues to make clutch baskets and limits his turnovers, Thornton could follow in the footsteps of other great Blue Devil point guards.
BP: We've gone almost two questions without mentioning graduate student Marshall Plumlee so I'll go with the big man here. Even though he doesn't post the flashiest numbers, he is in many ways Duke's most indispensable player. There are whispers that Amile Jefferson is close to returning, but nobody knows exactly when that will be, or even how effective Jefferson can be if and when he does come back. In the meantime, Plumlee has been shouldering nearly the entire load down low—as in, 35-plus minutes per game—and his efforts are critical to ensure that the Blue Devils have at least some semblance of an inside game and do not get pulverized on the glass.
SP: I'm with Ryan on this one. Jones has looked like a shell of himself for much of the season and appears to have lost a good deal of confidence in his shot. The junior came in to the season as one of the key pieces on this year's squad and was really expected to take the younger duo of Allen and Kennard under his wing. Instead, the DeSoto, Texas, native has had problems of his own. Jones has struggled mightily from the 3-point line in conference play and had a tough time on occasion hitting from the foul line. One has to wonder how much missing a potentially game-tying shot against Clemson and go-ahead three against Notre Dame has hurt Jones' psyche.
Duke took care of business in its first game of a four-game gauntlet against ranked opponents. How do you see the Blue Devils finishing out this stretch against Virginia, North Carolina and Louisville?
RH: I think Duke goes 2-1 against those three teams. The last two regular-season games against the Cavaliers have been absolute classics—with the Blue Devils prevailing on late 3-pointers in both of them—and I think Duke finds a way to make enough plays to protect home court Saturday. North Carolina's been struggling of late and it needed a late surge to come from behind and hold off Boston College—winless-in-the-ACC Boston College. Wednesday's game will be in Chapel Hill, but the Blue Devils could continue the Tar Heels' recent woes, though I think the tandem of Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks could be too much for Plumlee to deal with. And if both are in the game at the same time, Ingram will likely have to guard Johnson, who has 40 pounds on the freshman, a matchup that could turn into bully-ball down low. That leaves Louisville, which struggled shooting in the first half Monday before catching fire in the second half. I don't expect Damion Lee to shoot 3-for-15 from the floor again, but I also don't expect Grayson Allen to score just three points in the second half—the Blue Devils take down the Cardinals for the second time in 12 days and put the roughest portion of their schedule behind them.
MC: While the team certainly has their hands full with this stretch of games, I think the momentum from their past few performances will be in their favor going forward. Virginia will certainly be a tough team to navigate past, but home court advantage gives Duke the edge. North Carolina on the road may prove too much for the young Blue Devils to overcome, especially given their loaded roster this season and girth in the frontcourt. Duke could close out the stretch with a win against Louisville, but playing at the KFC Yum! Center has never proven to be an easy feat.
JD: They win the next two but fall in Louisville, Ky. Increasingly well-rounded, the Blue Devils ride the momentum against No. 7 Virginia at home and in Chapel Hill against a struggling North Carolina squad. But the Cardinals very well could have won Monday night, and their offense struggled mightily in the first half. Of course, all this changes if Amile Jefferson returns to the starting lineup.
BP: I think Duke goes 1-2 in these next three games, putting them at a very respectable 2-2 clip through this brutal four-game stretch. Going on the road to knock off Louisville less than two weeks after beating them in Cameron seems like a pretty tall order, and that game immediately follows the always-draining North Carolina rivalry. The Tar Heels, though, have looked very vulnerable of late, losing twice last week and barely squeaking by conference bottom-feeder Boston College. Tony Bennett's Virginia squad is a tough matchup this Saturday, but the Blue Devils are playing well of late and get the benefit of taking on the Cavaliers in Cameron. So I'll give Duke a split of the Virginia—North Carolina sequence, plus a loss at Louisville, to arrive at 1-2.
SP: I'd bet my money on 2-1 for the Blue Devils with the big game really being Saturday's matchup against Virginia. The Cavaliers are riding a seven game win-streak and bring one of the best defenses in the nation to Cameron Indoor Stadium. But Virginia has shown some vulnerability on the road this season and something tells me Duke will come out with a lot of energy in a game they know they need to win and do just that. Coming away with a road win against a motivated North Carolina team is a tough task for any team, let alone a Blue Devil squad lacking size down low. Duke should be able to bounce back from a loss in the rivalry game with a win on the road against Louisville—a team that has been better at home, but still struggles to get good looks on offense.
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