Every great team needs an identity—something that strikes fear in the hearts of its opponents before the ball is even tipped.
It seems that this year’s Blue Devils are finding that identity.
After a masterful defensive performance against No. 3 Kansas Tuesday, fourth-ranked Duke repeated the effort Friday evening in its 89-55 win against Colorado State. Duke forced 18 Ram turnovers, scoring 26 points off those giveaways. Nine different Blue Devils recorded a steal in the contest, with three players—Alex O’Connell, Joey Baker and Jordan Goldwire—recording two steals apiece.
But the most impressive facet of Duke’s defense wasn’t necessarily the numbers it registered or even what it did during the first half of the contest, when the game was actually close. Rather, it’s how the Blue Devils performed when the outcome was already decided—Duke gave up just 29 points while nursing a 30-plus point lead in the second half—that truly defines this year’s squad.
“It’s a sense of pride,” forward Jack White said regarding Duke’s defensive effort in the second half of the blowout win. “We want to play a 40-minute game of basketball, no matter if we’re down, we’re up, if it’s a close game, whatever it is. That shouldn’t change the way we play and how we compete. We all feel like it’s a huge honor to play here at Duke, and any minute we’re able to be out there on the court you got to play like [you] want it.”
The Blue Devils kept up the intensity until the final buzzer sounded, constantly diving for loose balls and never allowing an easy bucket throughout the second half.
That isn’t to say Duke’s defense wasn’t impressive in the first half as well. The Blue Devils forced three turnovers in the first five minutes of the contest, not including two huge blocks from Cassius Stanley and Vernon Carey Jr.
And with a team as young as Duke, it will need that defensive spark early in games to alleviate some of the natural lack of chemistry on the other end of the floor.
“I feel like it just led to our offense really, because coach just wants us to play our defense to lead to our offense,” Carey said. “If we make plays on defense, then we don’t really have to run plays when we come back down on offense. That’ll just take care of itself.”
Entering the year, it was clear that the Blue Devils had talent in the backcourt. With established ballhounds Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire and athletic freshmen Stanley and Wendell Moore, Duke’s perimeter defense came into the 2019-20 campaign prepared to wreak havoc on opposing wings.
Comparatively, many believed the team’s interior defense was primed to struggle, headlined by two freshman bigs more well-known for their offensive talents and a senior captain who has always struggled with foul trouble.
But through two games this year, that hasn’t been the case at all. In the Champions Classic, Duke limited Jayhawks center Udoka Azubuike—the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year—to a mere eight points, with the team’s strategy of doubling all entry passes into the post proving invaluable.
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On Friday, the team continued that success against dominant interior opponents. Colorado State’s Nico Caravacho led the nation in rebounding last year, averaging 16.1 points and 12.9 rebounds per game. But against the Blue Devils, he was a near non-factor, posting just 11 points and nine boards on 3-of-7 shooting from the floor.
“All of our bigs have come in and done a good job of being ready to fight,” Duke forward Javin DeLaurier said. “That’s just something we’ve been doing all summer just going against each other all preseason. We’re pretty used to it, just based off of practice.”
Of course, not all was perfect on the defensive end. Although Carey had his bright spots—posting two blocks and a steal—he also fouled out in just 15 minutes. While Duke was able to manage without the No. 6 overall recruit in the Class of 2019 against Colorado State, the Blue Devils will need Carey to stay on the floor once conference play begins.
According to his teammates, learning how to stay out of foul trouble is just something that’ll come with experience.
“He’s going to have to learn, and it’s something that constantly evolves,” DeLaurier said. “Every game is different. The refs are always going to be calling things differently…. Especially in tighter games, he’s just going to have to pick and choose his spots to let stuff go. That’s Tank—we’re going to need him.”
Luckily for "Tank," Duke’s nonconference schedule allows for a steep learning curve. But by the time the year turns, there’ll be no room for mistakes.
By then, the Blue Devils’ identity won’t be something that can be up for debate. It’ll be etched in stone.