The bleeding seemed like it would never end. 

Just two weeks ago, Duke’s perpetually struggling defense hit close to rock bottom, getting gashed for 81 points by underpowered St John’s before falling to North Carolina

But the Blue Devils’ band-aid, an aggressive zone defense, has worked better so far than just a temporary fix, helping shut down Virginia Tech and then-No. 11 Clemson on the road, even without star forward Marvin Bagley III. Those two games marked the first time Duke held two straight conference opponents to fewer than 60 points since 2015, when it raised its fifth banner. 

Now, the No. 5 Blue Devils look to keep up that defensive momentum against Louisville Wednesday at 9 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. With Bagley once again a game-time decision, Duke will face a Cardinals team that has lost four of its last six games, but boasts an offense that has put up nearly 80 points per game. 

“We’re still getting better. When teams watch us on tape from two weeks ago, we’re different. We’ll be different and better this week,” reigning national player of the week Grayson Allen said. “We’re going to keep adding things and should in a week be in position to be playing our best basketball.”

Allen is certainly playing his best basketball of the season without Bagley on the floor—he has averaged more than 22 points in his last three games. He has been an improved deep threat and is much more aggressive at getting into the paint and to the line—he combined to get 19 free throw tries during that stretch and made all of them. 

“Two weeks ago, I was falling out of aggressive mode. It’s at a point now where I have the ball in my hands, I’m staying in that mode,” Allen said. “Two weeks ago, I didn’t have to be in that mode all the time because of Marvin and Wendell and Gary and Tre and all these guys that are scoring the ball at will.... For me, it’s staying in that aggressive mode. We need that.” 

With Bagley out and Trevon Duval struggling at times, Allen has assumed more of a point-guard role, with Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier splitting time in the post replacing Bagley. The new defense has been lights out against guards, helping remedy the Blue Devils’ early-season woes in defending 3-pointers. 

Allen and Duval have been active at the top of the zone, switching over for each other to limit the effectiveness of opponents’ screens. That has allowed them to avoid getting caught in screens and made it harder for other teams to drive into the paint, Allen says. 

“We do a bunch of different things where we’re talking to each other and trying to be confusing and being in the right spots and make it work,” Allen said. “There are times where I watch on film and don’t know what the heck me and Tre just did, but we made it work, and that what it’s all about.”

But forwards and post players have still been effective against Duke’s new defense—and Louisville (18-9, 8-6 in the ACC) has two strong ones—leading scorer Deng Adel and 6-foot-10 forward Ray Spalding, who has averaged nearly a double-double this season. Without Bagley, Carter and the fill-in bigs struggled to stop Clemson forward Elijah Thomas, who dropped 13 points and grabbed 15 rebounds Sunday. 

“Obviously we miss Marvin tremendously. He’s a great player both offensively and defensively,” DeLaurier said. “But since the North Carolina loss, as a whole team we’ve focused on communicating more and sharing emotion. I’m sure Marvin will be an essential part of that when he’s healthy.”

Duke (22-5, 10-4) has dipped nearly 10 points per game in conference scoring without Bagley, but has also allowed nearly 14 fewer points per game. 

The Blue Devils will face an elite Louisville defensive unit that has been particularly stingy inside the arc this season, allowing the ninth-lowest 2-point shooting percentage in the nation. Outside of Carter, Duke hasn’t received much production on offense in the post without Bagley. DeLaurier and Bolden have combined for only 14 points in the last two games. 

DeLaurier doesn’t necessarily see it as his job to come in and be a scorer. 

“It’s just trying to come in and make plays that affect the game that aren’t necessarily scoring plays,” DeLaurier said. “Just trying to get rebounds, defensive stops and extra possessions. Little things like that that will help us win.”

Mitchell Gladstone contributed reporting.