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Beyond the arc: Without Zion Williamson, Duke men's basketball falls to the Hokies

<p>The Blue Devils could not get it done without its star-studded freshman Zion Williamson in the lineup.</p>

The Blue Devils could not get it done without its star-studded freshman Zion Williamson in the lineup.

Continuing on the toughest stretch in college hoops, No. 3 Duke traveled to Blacksburg, Va. Tuesday night to face No. 20 Virginia Tech Hokies, dropping a close contest 77-72. The Blue Zone takes a look at three takeaways, three key stats, and looks forward for the Blue Devil squad:

Three Key Takeaways: 

Feb. 26 is a bad day to be a Blue Devil

When it comes to facing the Hokies on their home turf, February 26th should be marked on the calendar in a manner akin to Friday the 13th. Virginia Tech has now bested a top-5 Duke team three straight times at home, all occurring on this very date.

Even a quick Google search yields very few important occurrences on this date that Duke may be distracted by on this fateful day. Unless the Blue Devils are wrapped up in birthday celebrations for the late Johnny Cash, it seems that there is not much other than an important conference game for Duke to be concerned with.

But it is clear that the Hokies are locked in on this specific date, proving it again last night.

Struggles continue without Zion Williamson

It is time to address the elephant in the room. Or, actually, the lack thereof.

Zion Williamson remains day-to-day with a Grade-1 knee sprain, and his absence has hurt the Blue Devils astronomically. Even disregarding the loss of an average of 21.6 extremely efficient points per game, the larger loss is a paint presence, on both ends of the floor.

Duke has struggled on the defensive end to get in front of opponents’ big men in the paint, often allowing easy twos from the post. And while Duke still remains the best blocking team in Division I hoops, the ball is sent down near the basket with such frequency that no amount of mere blocks can limit the points in the paint.

Javin Delaurier and Marques Bolden have been the go-to defenders when it comes to big men, but Bolden often finds himself in foul trouble, and DeLaurier, even at 6-foot-10, sometimes struggles to use his 234-pound frame to keep opponents from bullying him inside.

Williamson has both the agility and the size to defend anyone in the backcourt, and his scoring ability has proven itself over and over in the frontcourt. He is sorely missed on a Blue Devil team that has dropped two of three.

Jack White’s struggles from three continue

What was a momentum shifter in the first portion of the season has become one of Duke’s biggest liabilities in conference play. Jack White has missed every one of his last 28 attempts from beyond the arc.

On a Blue Devil team that has often shown weakness in its depth, Jack White was a shining light in non-conference contests, shooting better than 40 percent from long range and being an all-around menace on the defensive glass. But he has hit a brick wall, adding to its height with every shot he takes from downtown.

While his defensive play has returned to some of its former glory in recent games, Jack White will need to stop chucking up bricks and return to his former status of corner shot artist if Zion Williamson is to be out a little longer.

Three Key Stats:

2-for-2 from three for AOC

Alex O’Connell played half of the game on Tuesday, registering 20 total minutes as a starter. And while his name was not called on the offensive end very often, he converted both times, both from three point range.

With a career performance from the Roswell, Ga., native against Syracuse, and another efficient night against Virginia Tech, it is possible that O’Connell can become the second deep scoring threat alongside Cam Reddish. This will open up shots for both of them, as well as allow R.J. Barrett to penetrate into the paint with ease once teams tighten up their perimeter defense. If O’Connell can keep performing at this level, Duke may just learn to win without Williamson.

Four fouls

Duke’s two most important starters Tuesday, Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, both sat on four fouls when time expired. While two of Barrett’s fouls came in the last thirty seconds of the contest, the Blue Devils can simply not afford to have their two best starters carrying four fouls into the final ten seconds of a game in which they are trailing.

Whether it is doing a better job distributing crunch time fouls, or not letting a perimeter defender and shooter in Cam Reddish get to four with seven minutes remaining, the Blue Devils must improve as to not find themselves in this position in crunch time again.

78.9 percent from the line

Representing another bright spot in an otherwise bleak outcome, Duke registered 15 makes on 19 attempts from the charity stripe Tuesday night. This included a 6-for-6 performance from Marques Bolden, who is hitting foul shots at a 70.8 percent clip this season.

This was the main problem for the Blue Devils—along with their three point production— in the beginning of the season. But if Duke can keep up this level, especially when Williamson returns, they will win far more close games than not.

Looking Ahead

It does not get any easier for the Blue Devils, entering the home stretch of the season facing two potential trap games while staring down a season finale against No. 5 North Carolina. If Williamson returns, look for Duke to end the season on a high note headed into the ACC tournament— if not, it will be a fight to cobble together three more wins before the postseason.

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