Some may chalk up Duke’s slow start Tuesday to overlooking the contest in favor of the top-three matchup against Virginia that has received extensive media attention.
The Blue Devils have struggled to come out of the gates strong, especially in recent contests—offering a blueprint to defeat one of the top teams in the country.
“Our defense kept us in the ballgame. We did not communicate well. No one was talking. Even when we said something to run on offense, we did not run it,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We were kind of fortunate to be down only two at the half.”
At the start of the season, against the likes of Hartford, Yale, Princeton and Texas Tech, Duke struggled to break out in the first half—in part due to 18.4 percent shooting from deep—averaging a halftime lead of just 7.5 points despite playing teams it should have been blowing out.
Those problems have carried over to ACC play and pose a serious threat to the Blue Devils’ title hopes. Contests against Georgia Tech, St. John’s and now Boston College—all competition Duke should handle easily relative to the rest of its schedule—have seen the Blue Devils come out of the gates lethargic, failing to hold the lead as late as seven minutes into the second half.
The problems are stemming from continued woes from deep and a new defensive strategy against Duke that has exacerbated the lack of shooting. In the loss to Syracuse, the Orange forced the Blue Devils to attempt an astronomical 43 shots from downtown with their stifling 2-3 zone.
“Coaches around the country watching us attack the zone in the first half got to be saying ‘I’m not buying his zone offense book, not that I have one.’ We matched up where they were so we were not moving,” Krzyzewski said. “Zion was in the corner a lot. We had some outliers in the first half. In the second half we had good stuff against the man and zone and scored 52 points.”
Despite connecting on just 30.9 percent of shots from deep, Duke is attempting 23.3 shots per game beyond the arc for the season. Between the Syracuse, Yellow Jackets, Red Storm, and Eagles matchups the Blue Devils have shot just 21.9 percent on 28.5 attempts from downtown. By preventing the likes of Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett from getting inside through the zone, opponents have been able to force Duke’s offense to play from a point of weakness.
Early in the game, the offense tends to be stagnant with all of the wings sitting around the arc waiting for an opportunity to shoot or drive. Although the looks are typically wide open from ideal spots like the corner, it might be time to accept that the “regression to the mean” may not be as large as expected.
Jack White, after starting the season as a knockdown shooter, has gone ice-cold following his 0-for-10 performance against Syracuse, and seems hesitant to shoot when open. Meanwhile, Cam Reddish has not shown a consistent ability to connect, seemingly converting more on contested pull-up threes than catch-and-shoots from the corner. Williamson and Barrett are average shooters at best. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, their two highest-percentage shooters—Alex O’Connell and Justin Robinson—have combined to play just 15 minutes per game, often in garbage time.
The bright spot for Duke is that it is usually a vastly different second-half team offensively. Using the same games for reference, the Blue Devils improve their shooting from 16.7 percent from deep in the first half to 26.9 percent in the second frame. Whether it is simply adjusting to a new zone defense look with halftime adjustments from Krzyzewski or shots starting to fall, Duke has been able to overcome slow starts.
“In the first half we were just lacking energy and we couldn’t hit shots, so we came out in the second half wanting to attack and that’s what got us going,” Tre Jones said.
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However, with the upcoming six-game stretch featuring four road contests, four ranked teams, and the big rivalry game against No. 8 North Carolina, slow starts could make for a tumultuous stretch. Good teams will not easily cede the momentum and let an early lead slip away in front of a raucous home crowd. Look no further than Gonzaga—the type of high-caliber competition the Blue Devils will face in the tournament: the 16-point second-half deficit was ultimately too much to overcome.