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Column: Duke men's basketball proves it needs Johnson and Steward at the wheel

Jalen Johnson had a much more difficult time finishing inside Tuesday night compared to the Blue Devils' season-opening win Saturday against Coppin State.
Jalen Johnson had a much more difficult time finishing inside Tuesday night compared to the Blue Devils' season-opening win Saturday against Coppin State.

Well, it didn’t take long for Duke fans to hit the panic button.

After beating Coppin State by 10 points in a season-opener they were favored to win by 37.5 points, the Blue Devils again disappointed Tuesday night, losing to Michigan State 75-69 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. That six-point final margin is probably misleading, as Duke never cut its deficit to less than five points in the entire second half.

Perhaps most concerning for the Blue Devils after this loss to the Spartans is that everything that worked on Saturday didn’t on Tuesday. Jalen Johnson looked like he was one of the best players in the country against Coppin State, but scored 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting against Michigan State. DJ Steward looked like the perimeter scoring threat that the Blue Devils have lacked in recent seasons against the Eagles, but managed a mere six points on 0-of-7 from the field against the Spartans. 

Though it is difficult to draw any conclusions with certainty this early in the season, it seems clear that Johnson and Steward are the engines that keep this Duke team running. We saw what happens to the Blue Devil offense when Johnson and Steward struggle: it comes grinding to a screeching halt.  

In order for Duke to bounce back and prove it is an ACC and national contender, it needs Johnson and Steward to first prove Tuesday night was an outlier performance.

“It’s game two. It’s a long season. You’re not going to be perfect this early, so just know that we have more games to play and another opportunity [to play better],” senior guard Jordan Goldwire said on his advice for Johnson and Steward. “So, keep your head up, come back. Let’s put in the work, and we’ll be good.”

Johnson and Steward were not the only Blue Devils to struggle Tuesday by any means. After all, when a team shoots 32.3 percent from the field and 21.7 percent from three, there are plenty of fingers to point. Joining Steward in the “0-for” club were Joey Baker and Wendell Moore Jr., who went 0-for-3 and 0-for-9 on field goals, respectively. 

That means that three of Duke’s top perimeter scoring threats missed all 19 of their shots against the Spartans. Sorry to point out the obvious, but it’s hard to win games when that happens.

“We had three kids that were 0-for-19. DJ had 24 points in the first [game], but this is a different game that he has to adjust to,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You got three guys who were really good players—listen, I’m not blaming them, this just happens. They’re 0-for-19 and we have a chance in this game. And I don’t think they’re going to go 0-for-19 [again]. Hopefully, they don’t. But we have confidence in all of them.”

Through two games, Baker and Moore look pretty much like the same players they were last year. Despite his reputation as a scorer, Baker has scored just two points in 27 minutes this season. Moore was selected to the All-ACC second team this preseason, but he dribbled the ball off his foot more times than he made it in the basket Tuesday night. 

As Baker and Moore’s chances of breaking out dwindle, the need for Johnson and Steward to carry the offensive load grows stronger. Aside from sophomore Matthew Hurt, who had a strong 21-point outing against the Spartans, the remaining members of Duke’s rotation are better suited as secondary scoring options.

The Blue Devils’ success this season will come down to how Johnson, Steward and the rest of the deep Duke freshman class develops, as is the case so frequently in the one-and-done era. It’s time for the rest of the Blue Devils to buckle up, as this team will go as far as its newcomers take it.  

“Half our team is freshmen, and [we need] to just live the ride with them,” Hurt said. “It’s a long season, hopefully, and [we need] to get their backs. We have to come to work every day and try to improve and be better than we were yesterday.”

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