The Blue Devils have been running the same script on repeat for over three weeks. But unlike Bill Murray’s classic Groundhog Day, nobody’s laughing.
No. 21 Duke lost to fifth-ranked Louisville 77-65 on Sunday, dropping its record over the past six games to 2-4. Over that time, the Blue Devils (13-6, 4-5 in the ACC) have faced five defenses in the top quintile nationwide, with three in at least the 92nd percentile. Duke had an 88.0 offensive rating over the first five games in this stretch coming into Sunday; that’s 16.4 points below its season mark to that point, a drop from the 90th percentile to the 29th.
“The kind of pressure that Louisville plays on the defensive end of the floor, the duress that they put you under for the entire game [is stymying],” said acting head coach Beth Cunningham. “And I think their ability to turn the ball over, to get you out of your offense, to be disruptive, it wears on you in the course of the game.”
The clear delineation between Duke’s 11-2 start and 2-4 stretch has been the loss of Celeste Taylor, the team’s best defender and second-highest-usage player. But that alone doesn’t account for the dropoff in shooting — nearly every player has seen their true-shooting decrease, including double-digit falls from point guard Shayeann Day-Wilson, center Onome Akinbode-James, combo guard Lexi Gordon, and off-ball guard Lee Volker — and the 7.3% decrease in offensive rebounding rate, while scoring 10 fewer points in the paint and eight fewer points off turnovers and 15 fewer from the bench. It’s not hard to see there’s been problems up and down in these games.
And each of those games has been nearly the same story: the Blue Devils start off strong, before things fall apart in the second quarter; maybe they make it interesting late, but the fourth quarter seals it. Even against poor opponents in Miami and Virginia, Duke couldn’t find a way to put the game away before the intentional fouling period. The team continues to exert little rim pressure, while confused defensive rotations have allowed nearly as many uncontested jumpers as contested, per Synergy.
Duke’s adjustments haven't amounted to much either. The team ran a 2-3 zone as its primary defensive coverage for the third and fourth times this season against North Carolina and Louisville, but still allowed them 20 total points above their conference averages entering tip-off. Changing ball-screens into handoffs worked to stave off the ACC’s last-place team, but did nothing to help against the Tar Heels. Playing off-ball guard Jiselle Havas more or Volker more have made little difference.
Every game, the Blue Devils walk out to halfcourt and jump for the tip-off, knowing this one is going to be the same as the last. Bill Murray escaped this dilemma, after getting through depression and bargaining and denial, by learning how to make small differences along his day. Perhaps the shooting prowess and improved decision-making that Duke showed on Sunday—especially in the second half—is its start.
If the Blue Devils have any hope of waking up to a different day, however, they’ll be hard-pressed to show it; Duke welcomes Georgia Tech and the Power 5’s seventh-ranked defense (per Her Hoop Stats) to Cameron in just two days.
All stats per CBB Analytics unless otherwise noted
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