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Beyond the arc: Duke men's basketball holds on in key road conquest against Syracuse

Tre Jones played all 40 minutes of Saturday's win, scoring 17 points and adding six assists
Tre Jones played all 40 minutes of Saturday's win, scoring 17 points and adding six assists

Duke solved the rubix cube that is the Syracuse 2-3 zone Saturday, its 97-88 victory showcasing how effective the Blue Devils can be if they are able to attack a defense in multiple ways. The Blue Zone gives you three takeaways, stats and a looks forward for Duke. 

Three key takeaways:

Spread it around

Five Blue Devils scored in double figures against Syracuse, showing the balance that Duke can have when all ten members of its regular rotation are healthy. Vernon Carey Jr. led the way with 26 points on 9-of-14  shooting from the field, while three other starters scored at least 12 points. Offensively, the Blue Devils were patient in looking for the open shot, and with multiple players threatening to score in bunches, Duke was able to hold off each late rally by the Orange. Spreading the floor and having multiple ball handlers willing to be aggressive allowed the Blue Devils to force Syracuse to extend its zone out to the corners, which gave Carey room to feast on the interior.

O’Connell steps up

For much of this season, Alex O’Connell has struggled to make a significant impact offensively despite his athleticism and shooting ability. But the junior guard put his stamp on Saturday’s matchup with 11 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor. O’Connell displayed his ability to both attack the rim and pull up for mid-range jumpers off the dribble, helping the Blue Devils keep the pesky Orange at bay. It appeared that Syracuse’s zone opened up lanes for O’Connell to attack. 

Going into each of the past two seasons, O’Connell has seemingly been an X-Factor for Duke. If this is the start of a spark for the Georgia native, the Blue Devils will greatly benefit from his ability to space the floor and put pressure on a defense.

Air Cassius

With Super Bowl LIV ready to captivate the attention of the country, fans are preparing to see the vaunted combination of Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill produce fireworks for the Kansas City Chiefs. If anyone wanted to see a short preview of what might happen Sunday night, look no further than Carey Jr.’s full-court assist to Cassius Stanley during the second half. Besides the fact that Stanley’s layup put the Blue Devils ahead by double digits for the first time all night, it was an incredible display of agility and leaping ability by the high-flying freshman. 

With Stanley hauling in Carey’s fling with just his right hand, it made the sequence even more impressive. Carey’s arm strength should not be overshadowed, however, as he made about a 90-foot pass look like a routine toss. Of all 97 points that Duke scored last night, that bucket provided the biggest highlight reel.

Three key stats:

87.9 percent

In each of Duke’s three losses this season, even the casual observer could have pointed to free throw shooting as a major cause for each defeat. On Saturday night, however, the Blue Devils were stellar from the charity stripe, hitting 29 out of their 33 attempts, an 87.9 percent mark. With a high amount of contact on the inside due to a convergence of bodies, Duke had to capitalize on its opportunities when it had to trek to the foul line. Evidently, recent work in practice has paid off, as the Blue Devils were able to seal the win with some clutch free throws.

40 minutes

Due to the heavy pressure that Syracuse employed for much of the final ten minutes, Tre Jones was forced to go the distance Saturday, playing all 40 minutes. It is a testament to his stamina and drive that the sophomore led the team the entire way. By having Jones on the court for the maximum amount of time, Duke was able to control the tempo and force Syracuse to play out of its comfort zone at certain times. Jones being able to handle the full-court press kept Syracuse from getting any closer than five points in the final minutes.

61.3 percent

Against a 2-3 zone, the key to offensive success is ball movement and proper rotations. Duke was successful in that regard Saturday night, assisting on 61.3 percent of its field goals. The Blue Devils were patient and trusted their spacing throughout the contest, leading to open looks on the perimeter and lanes to attack the defense below the arc. Movement off the ball forced Syracuse to adjust its zone, and with Jones in control, the Blue Devils found a way to slice up one of the most famous defensive attacks in the entire country. The spacing was a result of preparation and playing quality fundamental basketball, and it allowed Duke to put the Orange in a bind by simply swinging the ball multiple times and exploiting the high post extended.

Looking forward:

Next up for Duke is a trip to Boston College, which is coming off a road victory against North Carolina. Tuesday’s matchup with the Eagles will be the second time the teams have faced off this season, as the Blue Devils thrashed Boston College 88-49 on New Year's Eve.

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