For the first time since 2007, Duke will take the floor as an unranked team.
Following an eight-day layoff, the Blue Devils return to action Tuesday against Georgia Tech at 9 p.m. at Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. Duke’s 80-69 loss at then-No. 15 Miami last Monday—its fourth defeat in its last five games—sent the Blue Devils tumbling out of the top 25 for the first time in 167 weeks, snapping the longest active streak in the country and the fifth-longest run in NCAA history.
The week-long reprieve could not have come at a better time for the Blue Devils, though, who have been primarily using only six players for the past several weeks. Duke has not fared well with short turnarounds recently—dropping the back end of Saturday-Monday spurts twice in the last two weeks—and the extended time off is helping the team to regroup.
“Having this time in between two games gives us time to work on ourselves, whereas before with a short turnaround it’s all scouting and preparation for our next opponent,” sophomore guard Grayson Allen said. “It allows us to have physical practices where we get up and down the court and run. I think it will be good for us—practicing like this and the time that we get like this, gives us a chance to get better as a team. You don’t get a lot of stretches like this, so we have to take advantage of it.”
Although the Yellow Jackets (12-9, 2-6 in the ACC) have been far from an ACC powerhouse in the last several years, they gave the Blue Devils all they could handle last year at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It took a monster second half from Quinn Cook for Duke to escape with a six-point win, and Georgia Tech kept the game interesting with prolific shooting from behind the arc—converting on 8-of-11 triples while the Blue Devils connected on just 5-of-18.
Head coach Brian Gregory's squad is 9-3 within the confines of McCamish Pavilion this season, and has played nearly everybody close. The Yellow Jackets already have a home upset of a then-No. 4 Virginia team on their resume and dropped their last two home ACC games by a total of just five points.
"I think they’re a lot better than they were last year. I think they’re really good," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said on the ACC's weekly teleconference Monday. "There are a number of teams in our league that are a few possessions from being a couple of games above .500 and a couple of possessions from being either at or below [.500]. They’ve lost some really tough games, but they’ve been in every game. I think they’ve done a really good job."
Georgia Tech may need to once again win the battle from behind the arc to continue Duke's woes. Krzyzewski’s team drills 8.8 3-pointers per game—tied for the most in the ACC—and its 38.1 shooting percentage from downtown ranks third.
The Blue Devil offense—which features four starters averaging more than 12 points per game—has carried the team for most of the year, but has sputtered during this recent stretch. Still, although Duke (15-6, 4-4) has been held to less than 70 points by three of its last five opponents, the Blue Devils top the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, and Allen thinks that could be the key to snapping out of their current funk.
“Offensively, we need to take advantage of the weapons we have,” Allen said. "Brandon [Ingram] has been really good for us, and he’s going to keep improving. That’s a mismatch he gives us out there on the court, and especially with the shooters that we have.”
The problem for Duke has been its defense, which allowed Hurricane guards Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez to slice through its 2-3 zone and distribute to open teammates in Coral Gables, Fla., last week. With senior forward and defensive centerpiece Amile Jefferson still sidelined with a fractured right foot, the Blue Devils have not been able to find much success stopping opponents with any of the man or zone schemes they employ.
Jefferson has returned to the floor in a limited capacity during practice, Krzyzewski said Monday, with the next step in the captain's recovery to evaluate his response to his on-court activity.
Jefferson’s absence has been felt most on the boards, and Georgia Tech—which ranks third in the conference in rebounding margin—is well-equipped to exploit that, led by the ACC’s leading rebounder in Charles Mitchell. Mitchell was a non-factor in last year’s contest, but the Maryland transfer is grabbing 10.7 rebounds per game this season, including more than four per contest on the offensive end.
Aside from Mitchell—who also averages 11.3 points per contest—most of the Yellow Jacket offense comes from its veteran backcourt. Senior Marcus Georges-Hunt leads the way at 15.9 points per game, and he is joined by one of the conference's top marksmen in graduate student transfer Adam Smith, who shoots 42.9 percent from behind the arc.
Tuesday’s game marks the halfway point of ACC competition, and Duke needs to pick up victories quickly to put itself in a better position for postseason play—and that starts with the Yellow Jackets.
“We have to look ourselves in the mirror and figure out what we need to do. As a team, we have to come together even more,” junior guard Matt Jones said. “Our backs are against the wall right now and we just need wins. That doesn’t mean we’re tight or anything, we just have to get better day by day.”
Ryan Hoerger contributed reporting.
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