At times, this year’s Duke team looks like a well-oiled machine, firing on all cylinders and making life hell for its opponents, as good Blue Devils should.
But sometimes, it feels as though Duke has no engine, as its shiny new parts don’t seem to gel together quite right.
Nonetheless, the Blue Devils' struggles didn't end up getting the best of them Friday night, as a strong second half pushed No. 6 Duke past Bellarmine 76-54 in the Mako Medical Duke Classic. Sophomore Matthew Hurt posted another double-digit scoring performance with 24 points, including 6-for-8 shooting from downtown.
“My teammates were finding me, putting me in the right positions, so I give all the credit to them,” Hurt said. “They told me to keep shooting and I just shot it with confidence.”
However, that doesn’t change the fact that the Blue Devils still have a lot of growing to do.
Duke (2-1) jumped out of the gates with a strong defensive mindset, holding the Knights to an abysmal 1-for-9 from the field over the first seven minutes of the game. Bellarmine (0-1) appeared to be shell-shocked, not even getting a shot off and turning the ball over on a good amount of its early possessions. Freshman rim-protector Mark Williams, who earned his first starting lineup nod, played a big role, finishing the game with four blocks. Duke opened up a quick double-digit lead thanks in part to three straight 3-pointers from freshman Jaemyn Brakefield.
However, an unfortunate turn of events for the Blue Devils allowed the Knights to claw themselves back into the game. Freshman star Jalen Johnson left the floor with two early fouls just three minutes into the game, and stayed on the bench until the second half. Then, a sequence of turnovers by Duke and heady backdoor cuts by the Knights brought Bellarmine within single digits near the end of the first half.
It’s clear to anyone watching closely that Duke is missing two key things that make or break a team’s ability to win games—leadership and point guard play.
On the surface, it may seem as though veteranship hasn’t been a problem for the Blue Devils. Hurt had a career performance from the field and senior Jordan Goldwire finished with three steals, continually wreaking havoc in the backcourt on defense. However, leadership is more than individual performances, and has a lot to do with how together the team plays as a whole. Connectivity on defense was an issue for Duke, as the Knights scored 38 points in the paint despite Duke playing both of its true big men throughout the course of the game.
“We just gotta keep going,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “This is very much a work in progress—I hope it’ll be a good work. But right now it is a work in progress.”
The Blue Devils' 18 giveaways are indicative of the team's bad habit of playing iso ball on offense. To play better team ball, either freshman point guard Jeremy Roach or Goldwire has to improve their ability to create offense for their teammates.
“We’re gonna shoot the ball better,” Krzyzewski said. “Our perimeter can shoot better than what it’s showing...the more we play hopefully the more familiar they will get with one another.”
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Finally, Duke needs its scorers to, well, score. Johnson scored just nine points in 15 minutes while sophomore Wendell Moore Jr. didn’t fare any better, scoring two points on a poor 1-for-7 shooting.
Bellarmine’s inexperience and inability to fully capitalize off the Blue Devils' mistakes made it impossible for the Knights to make a meaningful comeback, as Duke finally found its footing and opened up a 20-point lead in the second half.
However, Duke must take good notes in the film room this week to fix its errors before Tuesday’s match against No. 5 Illinois, who won’t be so kind as to let the Blue Devils get away with the same mistakes.
“Half the team, that was their third game of their college career...the physicality on Tuesday’s going to be crazy,” Hurt said. “We’re just gonna stick to the game plan, have solid defense and create for others.”