For a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament that looks unbeatable at full health, Duke sure has a glaring flaw: it shoots the 3-point ball at a meager 30.2 percent, the 16th-worst rate in the nation.
Make no mistake about it, these Blue Devils can still score. With the No. 6 offense according to KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric and college basketball’s most efficient scorer in Zion Williamson at its disposal, Duke rarely struggles to rack up points.
But in a climate where effectiveness beyond the arc is increasingly important—after all, three points are more than two—the Blue Devils’ woes from deep could prove to be what stops them from bringing a sixth title back to Durham.
Entering the season, concerns about Duke’s outside shooting quietly lingered among the hype surrounding the otherworldly freshmen class—none of the expected starters graded out as a sharpshooter except for Cam Reddish.
In the Blue Devils’ 118-84 drubbing against then-No. 2 Kentucky to open the season, this criticism was quickly quieted. Tre Jones, Reddish and Williamson each knocked down a three within the first 2:07 of action, and Duke finished the evening with 12 triples on an efficient 46.2 percent clip beyond the arc.
Although the Blue Devils did not sustain this rate, they remained a solid shooting team through nonconference play and into mid-January. That is, until Syracuse’s defense came into town.
The Jan. 14 loss to the Orange serves as perhaps the most damning evidence against Duke’s offensive abilities. Up against a stifling 2-3 zone defense, the Blue Devils jacked up three after three, but to no avail—Duke sunk just nine of its 43 attempts from outside en route to a 95-91 loss.
Jack White was responsible for 10 of those missed 3-point tries, a shocking night for the 6-foot-7 forward who led the Blue Devils in 3-point percentage for much of the first half of the season. White had been a revelation in stretching the floor for Duke, hitting a 3-pointer in 12 of the team’s first 13 contests.
But the junior captain’s confidence and playing time dwindled after his 0-for-10 effort against Syracuse, and White has converted on just five 3-pointers in his last 40 attempts, including a streak of 28 misses in a row that started with the game against the Orange.
That contest was not the only time inefficiency from outside plagued the Blue Devils. In its six games with Williamson sidelined by injury, Duke was forced to rely on perimeter scoring, and with limited success. Without Williamson, who is often a one-man fast break, the Blue Devils were forced into more half-court sets, where possessions often stalled into mediocre 3-point looks. Duke combined to shoot 16-of-71 on 3-pointers in its two regular-season losses to North Carolina, and the Blue Devils are just 2-3 this season when they attempt more than 30 triples.
Duke’s lack of productivity from deep indicates a recipe to take down the Blue Devils: force them to chuck up shots beyond the arc, and they will crumble.
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While head coach Mike Krzyzewski still has Alex O’Connell at his disposal, the sophomore sharpshooter has struggled to establish consistent playing time as a liability on defense despite leading Duke in 3-point percentage the last two seasons among players who attempted at least 10 triples.
O’Connell starred in the Blue Devils’ second meeting with the Orange, and his career-high five 3-pointers broke down the vaunted 2-3 zone. Yet, like White, O’Connell was mostly relegated to the bench during the ACC tournament, logging just 14 minutes in the three games.
During the Blue Devils’ ACC tournament run—which featured victories against Syracuse, No. 3 North Carolina and No. 10 Florida State—they knocked down just 24.6 percent of their 3-point attempts on their way to the conference title.
Clearly, this is a Duke team that can win big games without being efficient from deep, but the Blue Devils could surely make their path to cutting down the net in Minneapolis much easier with more consistency there.