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Column: Can Duke men's basketball keep 'cooking'?

Jeremy Roach had arguably his most complete game as a Blue Devil Monday night, notching 14 points and seven assists.
Jeremy Roach had arguably his most complete game as a Blue Devil Monday night, notching 14 points and seven assists.

Duke had a severe case of the Mondays, and it began to feel more and more like there wouldn’t be a cure.

Two Mondays ago, the Blue Devils blew a 15-point lead at home to a middling Notre Dame team, extending their losing streak to three and sending them below .500 for the first time in two decades.

Last Monday, Jalen Johnson opted out, leaving Duke without who many believed was its most talented player, even if the freshman forward had an inconsistent campaign up to that point.

This Monday, however, the Blue Devils proved that there just may be a remedy for the Mondays after all. Less than 48 hours after a season-altering win against then-No. 7 Virginia, Duke crushed Syracuse in Cameron Indoor Stadium, extending its winning streak to four games and proving there is hope in what recently seemed like a lost season.

So, does this mean the Blue Devils finally flipped the switch, and the team we saw struggle the first two-plus months of the season no longer exists? Freshman point guard Jeremy Roach, who had his most complete game of the year with 14 points and seven assists against the Orange, sure thinks the answer is yes. 

“We’re cooking at the right time,” Roach said.

Duke’s been rolling lately. This four-game winning streak is downright impressive, as the Blue Devils have outscored their ACC competition by more than 13 points a game during this stretch. 

Two weeks ago, the NCAA tournament felt like an impossibility for Duke. But now, it feels likely, with the real question for the Blue Devils being whether or not they can keep this momentum into March.

“We’ve been through ups and downs. So, at this point, any adversity for us, we'll get through it,” Roach said. “But I mean, it's just been a long season. Finally starting to get our rhythm, and I'm excited…. Let’s keep getting better.”

Duke has rewritten the script of its season in large part due to its freshmen. Sure, Matthew Hurt has still been the team’s best player, but he provided consistent production during the dark days of the season as well.

After a slow start to his freshman campaign, center Mark Williams has looked unstoppable at times during the Blue Devils' current hot streak. Against N.C. State Feb. 13, the 7-footer had 13 points and five blocks, most recently bullying his way to 18 points and 11 rebounds against the Orange.

Roach finally looks comfortable running the offense, orchestrating a Blue Devil attack that assisted on 27 of its 34 field goals Monday, the most assists Duke has recorded in an ACC game since 2001 and the second-most in a conference matchup in program history.

Joining Roach in the backcourt is fellow freshman guard DJ Steward, who, unlike Roach and Williams, has been a consistent contributor throughout the year similar to Hurt. Still, Steward has looked like a different player of late, knocking down clutch shots against the Cavaliers and facilitating the offense as well as he has all season against Syracuse, picking up a career-high seven assists.

The largest benefactor in terms of playing time from Johnson’s opt-out has been Jaemyn Brakefield. The freshman forward has flashed his potential lately, showing the ability to score creatively and efficiently.

Heck, even Henry Coleman III has had the chance to show off his skills, establishing himself as a consistent presence in the rotation and notching four points on a pair of putbacks against Virginia.

All these freshmen breaking out in the wake of a tough-to-swallow losing streak may seem illogical, but head coach Mike Krzyzewski thinks there’s an explanation.

“They are young, but you get old through experience,” Krzyzewski said. “And sometimes you get older by losing.”

Now, acting like everything is fine and dandy for the Blue Devils is not the right approach. After all, if you told anybody at the beginning of the season that Duke would be 9-6 in the ACC and outside the top 25 of KenPom.com’s rankings at the end of February, they’d be concerned. But there’s real reason to think that something has changed with this team, and that they can continue to bolster their case for a bid to March Madness.

If you ask me, Roach is right. Duke’s cooking right now, and, if its freshman chefs can keep it going, the Blue Devils’ redemption tour will continue forcefully.

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