In 2022, the Blue Devils have been fighting their own demon. Rust.
COVID-19 caused a 12-day basketball hiatus for the No. 8 team in the nation, and it hasn't looked like itself since. Duke suffered its first ACC loss against Miami in a heartbreaking matchup filled with turnovers, missed shots and missed opportunities, but it has a chance to get back in the win column Wednesday in Winston-Salem, N.C., against a hot Wake Forest team.
The Demon Deacons are riding a two-game ACC win streak and the momentum is in their favor following an overtime win against Syracuse. It will be a battle between a streaking team eager to prove itself and the preseason ACC favorites desperate to climb their way back to the top. Here are five things to look for as the Blue Devils prepare for the court.
Pressure is on
While Duke (12-2, 2-1 in the ACC) might be ranked eighth in the country, it certainly isn't playing like it. Over its past two games, it is averaging 42% from the field and 30% from the arc and have also committed 27 turnovers in that span. Duke’s play from its early season wins looks nothing like its play now, and the world is starting to take notice.
This Duke team is young. The freshman trio of Paolo Banchero, Trevor Keels and A.J. Griffin is talented, but inexperienced—this is Griffin’s first season in two years due to high school injuries. Banchero has been hailed as the potential first pick in the NBA draft, but his play has been inconsistent. Against Miami, his first and second halves looked like two different players. For Banchero to remind everyone that he is a superstar, he must be able to perform at a high level for the entirety of the game, not just the second half.
Keels has also put up a few underwhelming performances recently. He only scored nine points against Miami, his first single-digit game since the loss to Ohio State. Against the Hurricanes, he only made 2-of-11 attempts from the field and 1-of-6 3-point shots. Keels has yet to replicate his dominant showing from the season opener against Kentucky in which he scored 25 points.
These young players are experiencing more pressure, and more national attention, than ever before. Not only is it head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season at Duke, and final opportunity to win his sixth title, but all three are trying to prove they are capable for a future in the NBA. Will they rise to the occasion, or will the pressure be too much?
Wendell Moore Jr. has undoubtedly been a leader of this Duke team. Throughout the early part of the season, his play was exceeding all expectations. He has four games over 20 points, as well as an incredible triple-double against Army back in November. His experience, especially on such a young team with three star freshmen, has been crucial to the team’s ability to perform on big stages. However, his performances have been underwhelming following the break, only scoring 20 points and turning the ball over nine times in the last two games.
Now that ACC play is ramping up, Duke needs his experience and leadership more than ever. It is facing a Wake Forest starting lineup that includes no true freshman. Duke loses the age and experience battle, which did not bode well for it against Miami. Moore will have to prove that he deserves to be in the conversation for ACC Player of the Year, and that he can lead this team, against another older lineup.
For the Demon Deacons (13-3, 3-2), graduate student Alondes Williams has been leading their charge. The guard is averaging 20.4 points per game. He has blossomed following his transfer to Wake Forest from Oklahoma, stepping up to be a leader on a team that was decimated by injury last season. He has won ACC Player of the Week twice and can turn any game around.
One of Duke’s biggest strength’s is its bench. Griffin, Joey Baker and Theo John all bring their unique skillsets and playing styles to the court and have the ability to change the course of a game. Griffin and Baker’s shooting has proven itself indispensable, especially as the team struggles with offensive production. Baker’s seniority helps calm the young team, and Griffin’s stellar defense is ever important against high-powered ACC teams. John’s physicality can be felt from the top row of Cameron Indoor Stadium. All three are key pieces to Duke’s success, but they can only contribute as such from on the court.
The clear bench star has been Griffin, and the freshman earned his fair share of praise from head coach Mike Krzyzewski in the weekly ACC coaches' Zoom press conference.
“He's playing well right now, and is an easy guy to play with. And really one of our best shooters, if not the best shooter that we have.”
Shooting has been inconsistent for the Blue Devils, at best. Griffin provides that boost that is so crucial in tough matchups. As the young player progresses, his role with the team will grow. As for now, he provides a much-needed spark when the momentum as shifted towards their opponents.
The Demon Deacons have their own power off the bench in forward Khadim Sy. The graduate transfer from Ole Miss notched a double-double in a dominant victory against Florida State. Sy provides a physicality and rebounding presence that can elevate their play in tough matchups against big teams like Duke.
Shake off the rust
The dominating narrative surrounding Duke is still the rust from its extended basketball break. It was evident in the sloppy victory against Georgia Tech in which offense was hard to come by. It cost them the game against Miami with countless turnovers. The team has not looked the same since its December win against Virginia Tech.
“The thing that goes when you do not practice or when you’re just starting a season is talk, where you communicate,” said Krzyzewski of the team’s communication. “I think, well, I know we didn’t have good talk.”
More practice, and importantly, time, will allow the Blue Devils the opportunity to return to their early season form.
“We have to get back to where we’re at,” Krzyzewski said. The biggest key to this will be the team’s defense, which is usually one of their biggest strengths.
“Lack of practice hurt our defense,” said Krzyzewski, citing the COVID-induced break. This will be the third game since that break, and the Blue Devils have an opportunity to demonstrate their improvement against a Wake Forest offense that is averaging 80 points per game.
The Blue Devils loss to Miami can largely be attributed to turnovers—17, to be exact. Throughout the game, Duke’s failure to hold on to the ball and capitalize on possessions persisted. It was by far its worst game in terms of retaining possession, and the only reason it was able to compete with the Hurricanes was due to Miami’s own poor shooting, making only 25% from the arc.
The turnover problem has not been a consistent one for the Blue Devils, and they will have to keep it that way to compete with their ACC foes. It is, however, a common issue for Wake Forest. They are averaging 13.1 turnovers per game. While Duke ranks first in the ACC for assist/turnover ratio with 1.75, the Demon Deacons rank ninth with 1.16. The leading reason is Alondes Williams. He averages about three turnovers a game, including six in the overtime win against Syracuse.
Turning a weakness into a strength will be key for Duke to regain its position alone atop the ACC rankings. The Blue Devils average 14 forced turnovers a game, and if they can turn offensive possessions into points and take the ball away on defense, as they have been so far this season, Wake Forest will prove an easier opponent to beat.
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