CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.—The optimism was unbridled after Duke upset No. 9 Iowa more than three months ago. Sure, the Hawkeyes were coming off of a COVID pause, but their stars had still combined for 43 points and didn’t look too out-of-place. The Cameron Crazies were as fervent as they’d been in two years.
A quality loss to No. 1 South Carolina and win against then-No. 17 Notre Dame in the month following only confirmed the hype. Then combo guard Celeste Taylor, arguably the team’s best player, went down with an undisclosed injury, and would miss nearly a month. But no matter—the Blue Devils were deep and versatile and should have been able to continue playing strong. Duke peaked at No. 15 in the polls after its strong nonconference play, and was still ranked as late as Jan. 24, per Across The Timeline.
After losing Thursday night to Virginia 67-54, the Blue Devils are 2-6 since that Jan. 24 poll, affording the Cavaliers their first conference win in nearly two calendar years. What happened?
“I thought Virginia played with much more energy and spirit and effort than we did,” said head coach Kara Lawson. “We did not come out with the appropriate level of focus or discipline. And that's really disappointing at this stage of the year; as you're coming down the homestretch, you hope to be building toward playing your best basketball of the season. We did not do that tonight.”
In Duke’s first game after Taylor’s January injury, it blew an 80% win expectancy against No. 23 Virginia Tech, and followed that up by trailing No. 4 N.C. State by 20 at halftime. The Blue Devils notched a couple ugly wins against Miami and Virginia, two teams then in the bottom-third of the conference. Then they lost six of their most recent eight games, including a squeaker over the second-worst team in the conference (Wake Forest).
Duke has been plagued by a number of issues this year, discipline being the one Lawson has harped on the most during conference play. It’s hard to say exactly where the problem stems from. After last Thursday’s Florida State loss, Lawson said “I wish I knew — I'd change something," but it’s caused the team to rank 11th in the Power Five in turnovers. It has caused an otherwise solid defense to overhelp and stray from its principles in the biggest moments. It has caused the transition game, the most synergy-dependent area of play, to be a continual struggle.
But struggles with discipline don't explain the fewest points scored by any team against Virginia all season. A full explanation acknowledges Duke is a team with the 13th-highest 3-point attempt rate in the Power Five but the 36th-highest 3-point percentage. A team that creates as many quality shots as anyone in the country but gives them to a rotation featuring just two players above the 61st percentile in catch-and-shoot efficiency, per Synergy. A team with two pick-and-roll maestras at point guard but centers who have only been coached on screen-and-rolling for a couple years, with all the resulting limitations. A team with a center rotation perfectly average on post-ups but on miniscule volume.
“The only thing I know how to do as a coach is to just continue preaching that they take good shots,” said Lawson. “Most of them [against Virginia] were good shots, but some of them weren't. [The Cavaliers] got some deflections…and then some of them were just wide open and we weren't able to knock them down.
“We haven't consistently been a good 3-point shooting team all year.... That's something that we need, to be able to make some shots, go more than 3-for-22, to be able to win some games.”
The Blue Devils’ hit-or-miss shooting also means they have to bring it on the defensive end night-in and night-out. Which they mostly do, but for serious limitations at the center position: In the eight games Duke has played against a team with a quality opposing center, that player has averaged 20.0 points and 8.9 rebounds on 53.2% shooting. Blue Devil centers Jade Williams and Amaya Finklea-Guity both rate below the 30th percentile in post-up defense, per Synergy, and while Onome Akinbode-James rates above-average, standing at 6-foot-3 is a natural disadvantage against most great centers.
Williams and Akinbode-James have played close to 80% of the team’s minutes at the five, and rank an average of 294th nationwide in defensive RAPM, a measure of their impact on Duke’s defense that accounts for factors like lineup and opponent quality.
The players around them simply not performing is just as much a part of it. Taylor’s jump shot has improved from last year, but not considerably so. Balogun hasn’t returned to her early-Louisville form, Imani Lewis has played just 3.3 minutes per game including healthy scratches, and Nyah Green hasn’t played in almost a month.
Even among the players who’ve been playing, having to play in a new system, against teams with players who’ve already played together for years, has been an obstacle I underestimated.
“We all have to step up and have higher energy and take it to a different level,” said Lewis. “It's a learning process. And things aren't gonna always go our way. In this game, things didn’t go our way. But it's about ‘How can we capitalize on that, and what can we do to allow that to not get to us?’”
All stats per Her Hoop Stats unless otherwise noted.
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