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Duke men's basketball in desperate need of identity and leadership after loss to Illinois

<p>Jordan Goldwire led the Blue Devils defensively, though this young team needs a veteran to step up in running the offense.</p>

Jordan Goldwire led the Blue Devils defensively, though this young team needs a veteran to step up in running the offense.

These are confusing times for the Duke men’s basketball program.

On paper, things don’t seem to be going so bad for the Blue Devils, who sit at 2-2 with both losses coming at the hands of teams ranked in the top-6 nationally. Through four games, over 50 percent of the team’s minutes have come from newcomers, while preparation and routines for the 2020-21 campaign have been drastically altered by a global pandemic.

But after Duke’s revealing loss to No. 6 Illinois Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, optimism for the season seems softened. Young players and teams take time to learn and grow, yet Quinn Cook’s 2015 message that “Duke is never the underdog” was outdated for the Blue Devils’ most recent litmus test.

Fighting Illini head coach Brad Underwood’s squad took a commanding 12-2 lead by the under-16 timeout of the first half, a veteran move to stake its claim against a favored Duke team playing at home. Looking at the box score, Illinois only outscored the Blue Devils by three points for the remaining 36 minutes, but make no mistake, Mike Krzyzewski’s young team just could not find a way to create meaningful game pressure.

For a rare occasion, a Duke team was struggling and clawing with what seemed like no real hope. 

“We’ve just got to lock in for 40 minutes, every game. Just lock in for 40 minutes and play Duke basketball,” freshman guard Jeremy Roach said.

It’s possible that this may be Duke’s least talented team in a decade, even though it has more than enough to compete for championships. The issue now is finding identity and leadership before games start to take on even more weight.

The Blue Devils impressed with a stout defense that kept them within striking distance against the Fighting Illini, though it’s clear that the offense is struggling to take a definitive form. No one expects an inexperienced team like Duke to run polished half-court sets, but right now there isn’t a clear mold for how the pieces are coming together offensively.

Underwood mentioned the Blue Devils’ prowess on the offensive glass, and Duke should also have the tools to be effective in transition with athletic, versatile guys like Jalen Johnson. Yet, Illinois outscored Duke in fast break points 24-8, and both those aforementioned factors can really only be complements to an established offensive system.

“Whatever you see in the offseason, if you don’t have a veteran team where you have a bunch of key guys coming back, you are experimenting,” Krzyzewski said. “You don’t know for sure what the offense will look like. We thought we could be more of an up-tempo, penetrate, kick, ball screen and be free shooters. Obviously that’s not going on.”

The Blue Devils’ offensive problems are apparent to even the most casual viewers, with Duke exhibiting little to no movement in the half court, forced shots (especially long 2-pointers) and general confusion. Krzyzewski’s guards are also struggling to shoot the ball and his two best players both operate best at the power forward slot, no matter how much positionless basketball is emphasized.

However, with Roach’s stellar performance against the Fighting Illini, every major rotation piece for Duke has had at least one game showing promising play thus far, with the notable exception of Wendell Moore Jr. Many of the Blue Devils' most talented rosters, like in 2017, just didn't click, but with the current structure of the rotation, failing to find the optimal lineups and point of attack could result in much worse than an early NCAA tournament exit.

“I think everyone’s versatile on the team and we can adapt to any set of lineups,” Hurt said. “We’re going to trust Coach [Krzyzewski] and whoever he feels like is going to be out there is going to be out there. We’re just going to keep playing hard and try to win the game.”

What the Blue Devils may have needed most Tuesday was a veteran to step up to say ‘enough is enough,' acting as a force and example on both sides of the floor, a la Tre Jones or Zion Williamson. Jordan Goldwire had some nice buckets along with his stellar defense, but is nowhere near the scorer needed to fill that role. Hurt’s third consecutive game with at least 19 points is a major bright spot for Duke, but is he ready to lead as a sophomore?

“Our veterans have only been able to do so much to help us. Matt [Hurt] and J-Gold are playing well obviously,” Krzyzewski said. “The more veterans you have, it can help the younger guys. Usually, a veteran can help another kid and be a source of strength. Some of these young guys are out there a little bit alone.”

Despite the major troubles, there isn’t a reason to abandon ship just yet with Duke. The Blue Devils aren’t on the same level as national title contenders right now, and that’s perfectly fine in early December. A young team like this will have its bumps and bruises all the way through March, and seeing an identity take shape is all that needs to happen as the season moves forward.

“Our guys, they’ve not experienced that yet,” Krzyzewski said in regards to opponents giving Duke their best shot. “They’re experiencing that right now. Hopefully, that makes us tougher and better.”

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