Saturday, Cam Reddish knocked down a last-second 3-pointer to lift the Blue Devils to victory against Florida State in Tallahassee, Fla.
Monday, however, Reddish was ruled out just before game time with flu-like symptoms and Duke suffered beyond the arc against Syracuse.
The Blue Devils faced the Orange and coach Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone, designed to overwhelm opponents with long limbs and cut off driving lanes to the basket. Despite a few of Zion Williamson’s and R.J. Barrett’s bulldozing drives to the basket, Duke largely settled for outside shots and was unable to knock them down, finishing the game shooting just 20.9 percent from downtown.
“We couldn’t make shots,” Barrett said. “Zion put up 34 right in the middle of the zone. We can score against it, just messing up the shots.”
Syracuse has made it a staple of its defensive strategy to force teams out away from the basket, and this strategy is particularly effective against the likes of Duke. The Blue Devils possess several players with elite athleticism but lack consistent outside shooting, ranking 235th nationally in 3-point percentage.
Duke generated numerous good looks but was simply unable to convert at crucial moments to keep the visiting team at bay, including missing several wide open triples down the stretch and in overtime. Barrett had a particularly difficult time from the 3-point line, going 4-for-17.
“We had open shots that were threes,” Krzyzewski said. “They were clogging the lane, so I don’t fault my guys for that. It’s not a game plan, it’s what’s there.”
The Blue Devils were forced out of their normal offensive rhythm early on when starting point guard Tre Jones was injured partway through the first half and left the game with a shoulder sprain. Jones has been a revelation this year, particularly defensively, but has also been instrumental in initiating Duke’s offense, as the Apple Valley, Minn., native leads the country in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“The game plan was to have Tre Jones and Cam Reddish,” Krzyzewski said. “When you get two guys hurt and injured, there is no game plan anymore. It’s a period of adjustment and adaptability throughout, so you’re trying to figure out ways to win.”
The lack of offensive fluidity become particularly apparent in the second half and overtime, when the Blue Devils shot a combined 29 3-pointers, finishing the game with 43 attempts. With Reddish, one of Duke’s best outside shooters, sidelined, the perimeter shooting burden fell on Duke's role players.
Jack White, who made his first start as a Blue Devil in place of Reddish, finished 0-of-10 beyond the arc.
The lone bright spot on the night was Alex O’Connell, who played heavy minutes and was the one Duke player able to shoot effectively from the perimeter, going 4-for-8. He was able to find open looks and knock them down consistently, earning the respect of the zone defense and helping to generate shots for others. The sophomore finished as the Blue Devils’ third-leading scorer with 16 points.
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“I saw it going in and started feeling confident and getting a little bit looser,” O’Connell said. “I was ready to step up because I knew Tre was hurt and Cam wasn’t feeling good. I had to make sure I could make the most of my play tonight.”
It is also likely that O’Connell will see an uptick in his playing time if Jones is forced to miss more games with his injury, which could bring another shooting threat to the floor.
While Duke still possesses two of the most devastating one-on-one scorers in the country with Williamson and Barrett, the road ahead may not be easy if the Blue Devils do not find some semblance of consistency from the perimeter.
Duke’s next game comes Saturday against No. 4 Virginia, another team built around an elite defense designed to cut off penetration and force teams into long shots. The Cavaliers have the second best defensive efficiency in the country and have allowed over 60 points just twice behind their pack-line defense. They will look to deny Williamson and Barrett easy lanes to the basket and instead force those two to beat them from the perimeter.
Reddish seems likely to return for Saturday’s matchup, which would give Duke another shooter. But Virginia poses a challenge for even the most perimeter-oriented teams, and the Cavaliers were the only team to beat the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium last season.