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Take of the week: Duke men's basketball needs an identity, and it all starts with defense

In order for Duke to turn its season around, the Blue Devils need to start with establishing a defensive mindset.
In order for Duke to turn its season around, the Blue Devils need to start with establishing a defensive mindset.

Over the first four games of the season, Duke’s struggles have become overwhelmingly apparent. 

Not only do the Blue Devils have two losses, but they have not looked like the team they were expected to be coming into the season.

This slow start throws a looming question mark over the team’s future, leaving many wondering if this Duke squad has the chemistry to succeed. Frankly, in these early games, the Blue Devils have looked more like a group of individuals and not the cohesive unit that is needed to succeed in college basketball. But most importantly, they need to find a team identity before ACC play. 

The solution to that missing identity all starts on the defensive end.

Defensive players like senior Jordan Goldwire and freshman Mark Williams should be given significant playing time and used as major pieces of the team. Over the first four games, Goldwire has racked up 11 steals, crippling opposing guards and making important plays that don’t show up on stat sheets.

Similarly, Williams has four blocks in just 30 minutes, and the impact of his post presence is clear even outside the box score. With more minutes, Williams and Goldwire could continue to restrict opposing offenses and bring greater success for the Blue Devils.  

As a team that is often able to rely on talent to win games, Duke rarely needs to rebrand its style of play during a season. However, if we’ve learned anything in these opening games, we know that change is often a prerequisite for success in this bizarre year. 

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has the time to remodel this team’s identity if he chooses to do so, as Duke has just two games in all of December following the cancellation of the rest of its yet-to-be-played nonconference games. 

In my mind, Krzyzewski needs to look no further than ACC rival Virginia for inspiration. Over the last several years under head coach Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers have had success with their defensive emphasis, winning two ACC tournaments over the last seven seasons and capturing the 2019 national championship. 

Interestingly, Virginia has achieved all this without the top recruiting classes of the Blue Blood schools and often without individual stars. Instead, the Cavaliers use stifling team defense to wear down their opponents and win without the flash of a typical highly-ranked team. 

In fact, in its 2018-19 championship-winning season, Virginia allowed just 56.1 points per game, the lowest in the country. While that number is unrealistic to expect out of any team, I believe that a shift toward a defensive mentality could create a more cohesive and competitive Blue Devil squad almost immediately. 

As a whole, Duke needs to focus on greater team basketball, both on defense and offense. The shift in mindset on the defensive end would likely spread to the other end of the court as well, promoting more passing and cooperative motion on offense. 

In the coming weeks, Krzyzewski has a chance to revamp this team, and hopefully he takes that chance to establish a defensive intensity. With that new identity, the Blue Devils could storm into ACC play as the powerhouse we all expected. 

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