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'Tough to explain': Duke men's basketball's sloppy season-opener shows significant room for growth

Coach K said it was "tough to explain" some of his team's turnovers Saturday.
Coach K said it was "tough to explain" some of his team's turnovers Saturday.

Sometimes, a victory doesn't have to be all that pretty.

The first Duke outing in over eight months ended in a Blue Devil win, but the 81-71 final score against an overmatched Coppin State is an indication that Duke still has to iron some things out early on in this unconventional season.

While freshmen Jalen Johnson and DJ Steward poured in a combined 43 points in their college debuts, other areas of the Blue Devils' performance were clearly not up to regular expectations. Duke coughed the ball up a whopping 22 times and shot 40 percent from the charity stripe, both of which kept the Eagles within striking distance and cannot occur if the ninth-ranked Blue Devils hope to be among the best teams in the country this season.

“You get 22 turnovers and go 4-for-10 from the free throw line...it's a recipe for disaster,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It's tough to explain some of those turnovers. It's just tough to explain where you throw it across the half court, and you throw it out of bounds." 

With former Maryland standout guard Juan Dixon manning its sideline, Coppin State exhibited the same toughness that its head coach showed during those early 2000s matchups against the likes of Duke's Jay Williams and Shane Battier. Dixon's team, a veteran group that was able to space the floor and hang around, also brought back memories of the Stephen F. Austin squad that knocked off then-No. 1 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium just over a year ago. 

The Blue Devils were able to avoid that major upset this time around, but there were certainly parts of Saturday's game that reminded the team of that stunning defeat.

"[Coppin State is] old, they're men—reminded me a lot of Stephen F. Austin from last year," Krzyzewski said. "We showed how young we were today, and they sense it. Some of these kids are four years older than us."

As the season continues, the energy that Duke brings to the court will need to be dialed up a notch to make up for the team's youth as well as the lack of fans in attendance. This means the Blue Devils will have to rely on every player, including the six newcomers who saw action Saturday, for a boost.

“There's no atmosphere,” Krzyzewski said. “You have to provide the atmosphere with your enthusiasm and talk. And we did not talk very well.”

Now, the Blue Devils will turn the page and look to grow from this performance. Coppin State proved to be a challenging matchup with its freewheeling style of offense, but the Blue Devils will undoubtedly square off with more talented and even more cohesive clubs over the next few months. 

“We can’t allow older teams to come in and be more physical than us because we're younger,” sophomore forward Wendell Moore Jr. said. “And I feel like we kind of allowed that to happen at some points in the game tonight, where they would get a couple steals, [go on] a couple runs. I'm supposed to be a leader on this team, so it was supposed to be my job to fix that when it happens.”

Even Johnson, who posted a jaw dropping 19 points and 19 rebounds and made it look like a walk in the park in the process, succumbed to the turnover bug and committed seven of his own. 

“I just have to be strong with the ball and know time and score,” Johnson said.  “[That’s] something I'm going to get better at and improve for next game.”

With talented nonconference foes such as Michigan State and Illinois on the horizon, the Blue Devils will have to clean a few things up. Sending Coppin State back to Maryland in defeat was a start, but Duke is still a long way away from playing at the level it will need in order to make a deep tournament push in March.

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