Duke is undefeated, but at times, it has looked nothing like it—much less the No. 1 team in the country.
It looked awful in the first half against Southern, faced a six-point second-half deficit against Portland State, looked discombobulated and fell behind 16 points to Texas and trailed by 17 to then-No. 7 Florida Sunday night.
But somehow, a team that ran out five freshmen in overtime against Texas gritted its way back to win all four games.
Now, the Blue Devils will hope to make things a little easier on head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s vitals Wednesday at Indiana in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at 9:30 p.m. after they needed a 15-2 run to close the game to beat the Gators. No. 1 Duke heads to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind., trying to wrap up a season-opening stretch of nine games in 20 days with a win against a defensively-challenged Hoosiers’ team in its first true road game of the season.
Hopefully for the Blue Devils, the game is less stressful than the last four—a reporter jokingly asked Krzyzewski Sunday if his blood pressure was okay after the tight wins.
“I do talk to my doctor,” Krzyzewski said. “Your blood pressure is a lot higher when you don’t have good players than it is when you have good players. We have very talented players...That’s what’s more amazing to me, that they’ve been able to do these things. We can’t improvise very much in a game. It’s not habitual yet. The only thing that’s habitual is their will to win because they bring that to us.”
A young group that has been short on consistency has been lights out when it counts.
The stage certainly hasn’t been too big for towering forward Marvin Bagley III. The former No. 1 recruit became the first Duke player to score at least 30 points and grab 15 rebounds in a game since Christian Laettner in 1992—and he did it two games in a row.
“Marvin Bagley is a prodigy,” freshman guard Gary Trent Jr. said. “He’s a great player and an even better person. I say this all the time but he’s a hard worker, he’s a great leader, he’s a great basketball player and I’m glad he’s on our team.”
With 34 points and 15 boards against Texas and 30 points and 15 rebounds against Florida, Bagley has been the one constant on a team that has struggled to get consistent results from its lone senior, Grayson Allen, and a plethora of highly-touted recruits. Behind Bagley, the Blue Devils (8-0) have the most efficient offense in the nation according to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, despite a shooting slump from Allen.
Ever since he scored a career-high 37 points to help Duke down then-No. 2 Michigan State Nov. 14, Allen has struggled from beyond the arc, shooting just 17.3 percent on 3-pointers for the next four gamers before a 4-of-8 showing against the Gators. Krzyzewski hopes Allen can continue that pace against a Hoosiers team that has been one of the worst in the game at defending the three—they rank 342nd out of 351 teams in 3-point percentage allowed. Overall, they rank a dismal 193rd in the nation in Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency.
First-year head coach Archie Miller didn’t get off to the best start after Indiana (4-2) lost its three most talented players—the Hoosiers were blown out of the water at home by Indiana State in their opener and allowed 17 3-pointers. Albeit against weak competition, Indiana has now rattled off wins in four of its last five games, with the only loss coming against then-No. 22 Seton Hall.
Indiana doesn’t have a lot of size—forward De’Ron Davis is the only rotation player taller than 6-foot-8 against a Duke team armed with four huge weapons in Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr., Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden.
DeLaurier and Bolden have been forced onto the floor more than usual in the past two games, with Carter picking up four fouls in both and combining to play just 41 minutes. Although Carter struggled from the floor against the Gators, he helped anchor a man-to-man defense that was stifling for the last 10 minutes.
With a squad that is still adjusting to the college game, Krzyzewski has had to bounce back and forth between a 2-3 zone and a man defense—with varying results. The zone worked in the first half during a 20-4 run, but failed later in the half, forcing Krzyzewski to go back to the man defense. The 37-year head coach isn’t worried that not everything has become second nature yet for the Blue Devils.
“We have to let that go and take some slippage in X’s and O’s,” Krzyzewski said. “If we can add the X’s and O’s to that other thing, we have a chance to be very good.”
Whatever style of defense it ends up playing Wednesday night, Duke will have to hone in on on leading scorer Robert Johnson, who has shot 40.7 percent from deep, as well as sharpshooters Josh Newkirk and Devonte Green. Forward Juwan Morgan has also been an efficient threat from the post, shooting 55.0 percent from the field and averaging 11.8 points per game.
Bagley hopes the Blue Devils can take the solid defensive mentality it flashed in the second half against Florida early and often against the Hoosiers.
“As soon as we got out of the huddle, we were saying we needed stops, very important stops to get into our offense and get easy buckets in transition. We started playing hard, man,” Bagley said. “Now, the next step is figuring out how we can do that at the beginning instead of having to fight back the whole time, because that can get stressful sometimes. We've always got to keep continuing to learn and get better. We’ll figure it out sooner or later.”
Hank Tucker contributed reporting.
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Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor
A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks.