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First-half struggles: Can Duke men's basketball turn the tide before it's too late?

Duke fell behind by 12 points in the first half against Wake Forest Tuesday night.
Duke fell behind by 12 points in the first half against Wake Forest Tuesday night.

There’s no other way to put it: the 2019-20 Blue Devils have been a disappointment on the road. 

After a double-digit win against then-No. 11 Michigan State Dec. 3 in East Lansing, Mich., Duke has failed to match the intensity of its opponent out of the gates in each and every one of its nine ACC road matchups.

When every opponent has you circled on the calendar, making a statement from the opening tip is crucial. The last thing you want to do is give the other team and home crowd confidence and life in the opening minutes. In the ACC, anyone can beat anyone on any given night, and a little bit of extra energy can go a long way toward a monumental upset.

For this reason, winning the first five minutes of the contest is essential. Despite coming away victorious in six of nine road battles, the Blue Devils have shockingly not won the first five minutes once. 

Here are Duke’s deficits at the 15-minute mark in the first half and the Blue Devils’ eventual largest first-half deficit in each of their nine ACC road games thus far:

Your eyes are not deceiving you. Duke has dug itself into a seven-point hole in eight of its nine road contests. How many wake-up calls will it take for the Blue Devils to get the memo? If Duke struggles in the opening minutes again Saturday at Virginia, it will be in serious danger of falling to fourth place in the ACC after having a clear path to the No. 1 seed less than five days prior. 

Another concerning part of this all is the fact that the ACC is having a down year talent-wise. Those nine teams represent nine of the bottom 10 teams in the conference. And, of those nine teams, just N.C. State remains in serious contention for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. 

In order for the Blue Devils to snap out of their funk, they’ll need to do a better job of staying out of foul trouble. Freshman Vernon Carey Jr.’s ability to establish Duke’s interior presence is crucial, yet the 6-foot-10 phenom has struggled to stay on the court. Carey has averaged four fouls per contest over his last five road games and his absence has been costly on nights when the Blue Devils haven’t been able to find their rhythm from the perimeter. 

Like Carey, senior Javin DeLaurier also fouled out twice in the last five road games, and continues his career-long battle to stay on the court. This issue proved especially costly against Wake Forest Tuesday, as defensive liabilities Justin Robinson and Matthew Hurt were constantly exploited in the final five minutes of regulation and throughout overtime. 

When Duke takes the court Saturday, it'll desperately need to bring the dominant home victories against Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech to the forefront. Tre Jones needs to continue to set the tone on both ends of the floor early for the Blue Devils to come away with a bounce-back victory. 

With one game remaining in February, Duke quickly needs to turn the tide on its slow starts. Anything can happen in March, and a dismal opening five minutes could very well turn the dream of a sixth national championship into a stunning first-weekend exit.

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