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One word for Duke men's basketball vs. Pittsburgh: Variability

Johnson made a number of critical blocks to keep Duke in the contest against Pittsburgh.
Johnson made a number of critical blocks to keep Duke in the contest against Pittsburgh.

After an upset loss to Pittsburgh, the Blue Zone is here to give you a summary of the game in as concise a manner as we can—in one word:

One word: Variability

Duke displayed both a higher ceiling and a lower floor than many anticipated in its 79-73 loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. The Blue Devils trailed for the majority of the game, largely due to turnovers, missed shots and fouls, but things really got out of hand when the Panthers opened up a 15-point lead in the second half. 

Although Duke has struggled against its top opponents this season, few would have predicted this poor of a start, and even fewer would have predicted this loss to an unranked Pittsburgh team. However, Duke raised some eyebrows when it clawed its way out of the deficit and at one point, made it a one-possession game with two minutes remaining. 

Freshman forward Jalen Johnson dazzled in his return from a foot injury, making the Blue Devils look arguably more potent than they have all season. Although Duke has fallen to 5-4 overall and 3-2 in ACC play, the Blue Devils have some exciting potential moving forward that was largely unnoticed before tonight. 

One stat: 38.6% from the field

The lows of Duke’s variability were highlighted by its inability to hit shots consistently on Tuesday. Duke shot 27-for-70 from the field, a startlingly low number and Pittsburgh’s 46.2% mark from the field proved to be too much for the Blue Devils to handle. 

In the previous two games leading up to Tuesday, sophomore forward Matthew Hurt had shot 50% or better from the field and scored at least 20 points. Against the Panthers, Hurt struggled to find his rhythm, shooting just above 38% from the field and posting only 13 points. 

The Blue Devils also struggled with three-point shooting, going 8-for-28 on the night. One example is in freshman guard Jeremy Roach, who is usually a proficient shooter, but went 0-for-7 from beyond the arc. The offensive game plan gave opportunities for players to score, but the Blue Devils were unable to convert on their open looks throughout the game, leading to this loss to Pittsburgh being largely attributed to shooting woes. 

One player: Jalen Johnson

In his first full game back after returning from a month-long foot injury, nobody knew exactly what to expect from Johnson. If Tuesday’s game against Pittsburgh is any indication, the Blue Devils have a lot to be excited about. 

Although he did not make the starting lineup, Jalen Johnson dominated both ends of the floor in the 33 minutes he played before fouling out. Johnson had 24 points, 15 rebounds and four crucial blocks, leading Duke in its impressive second-half run. 

The Milwaukee native’s over-the-head pass and explosive plays in transition may have reminded Blue Devil fans of the excitement of past freshman phenoms such as Cassius Stanley, Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. 

Duke has struggled in most of its games this season, even to unranked opponents. However, to the team’s credit, the Blue Devils have fought through it all and shown tremendous grit. 

Tuesday’s loss to Pittsburgh exposed this same struggle that is not typical of Duke teams, but it was different than earlier performances because for arguably the first time this season, Duke gave a glimpse of its true ceiling. 

Johnson sparked a flame that caused a 15-point deficit to evaporate in just a few minutes, giving the Blue Devils some promise as they move on to tackle the rest of the ACC.

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