Now that a regular season filled with some of the highest highs and lowest lows in Duke history has come to a close, the Blue Devils must prepare for the ACC tournament. Seeking its 22nd ACC championship, Duke will need to be on its A-game, which means doubling down on its strengths and addressing its weaknesses:
Duke set an early precedent that it would be a defense-first team. As shots refused to fall from the free throw and 3-point line, it became an absolute necessity to compensate for those missed opportunities on the other end of the court. As the season progressed, the Blue Devils hit their offensive stride and began to depend less on defense, but the talent and fundamentals are still there.
Duke's defensive leader is none other than Tre Jones, the newly-crowned ACC Defensive Player of the Year. His surefootedness and quick hands make him a nightmare for opposing point guards. Complementing Jones on the perimeter is Jordan Goldwire, who has more than proven himself as an elite defender this season. Along with Vernon Carey Jr. securing the frontcourt, the Blue Devils' defense is in a good position to start the tournament.
Free throw shooting
Duke really struggled at the line for the first half of the season. The low point of the season came in the Blue Devils' upset loss to the unranked Clemson Tigers, a game in which Duke shot a dreadful 10-of-20 from the charity stripe. Since then, however, the team's free throw shooting has been night and day. Up to and including the loss at Clemson, the Blue Devils shot under 70 percent from the free throw line nine times on the season. Since then, they have shot under 70 percent only three times, a miraculous turnaround. If games start to come down to the final minutes, Duke’s newfound free throw proficiency will be a major asset.
At the beginning of the season, Duke’s greatest asset looked to be its depth. However, as time went on, the Blue Devils gradually fell into the same circumstance as most teams, relying on just two consistent scoring options in Carey and Jones. Granted, most teams would kill for a combination as lethal as this duo has been, but there are nights when these two are simply not enough.
In order to build comfortable leads in this tournament, production from Cassius Stanley and Matthew Hurt will be an absolute necessity. All of Duke’s upset losses this season show a distinct imbalance in the points column, which cripples the Blue Devils more and more as games drag on. Duke has a large but unpredictable roster of offensive role players who can either shine or shrivel up when the spotlight gets too bright. For the remainder of the season, the spotlight will be brighter than ever, and the Blue Devils need to find their scoring options early on in each game.
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One habit that has haunted Duke for nearly the entire season is its tendency to play down to its opponent's skill level. This was evident in its historic upset loss to Stephen F. Austin as will as its losses to unranked Clemson, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Virginia. However, this isn’t just a periodic problem. Even in many of the Blue Devils' wins against unranked squads, the scores were much closer than they should have been given the skill mismatch.
Oftentimes, Duke underperforms in the first half, only to wake up in the second and regain control. But there have been games this season in which the team wakes up too late or fails to wake up at all, leading to embarrassing upset losses. If the Blue Devils underestimate their opponents, starting with a matchup against either fifth-seeded N.C. State or 13th-seeded Pittsburgh, they could dig themselves a hole too deep to get out of.