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Duke men's basketball shows off winning formula by playing to its strengths against Delaware

Duke junior Jeremy Roach drives to the basket during the second half of Friday night's game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke junior Jeremy Roach drives to the basket during the second half of Friday night's game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

If one only looked at the final score of 92-58, it may have seemed like Duke had no trouble winning Friday's game. However, the Blue Devils could not easily put away the Blue Hens. While they started out strong, jumping out to a 31-18 lead with less than nine minutes left in the first half, Delaware went on a 15-6 run and cut the lead down to six at halftime.

“That's not our defense,” head coach Jon Scheyer said of Duke's first-half defense. “We need to be solid, disciplined and really with our size, protecting the paint—and give them credit, they hit some tough threes, I thought, in that first half. But I thought we did a much better job which is being disciplined, controlling the ball and having an awareness for protecting our rim.”

The Blue Devils are discovering their team identity in this early season, with major players returning from injury—forward Dariq Whitehead made his debut Friday and fellow freshman Dereck Lively II marked off his first game in the starting lineup. With changing lineups and several new players added to the roster this season, team chemistry is still in its early development. No matter the lineup change, Duke still has to focus on winning games, and as it experiments throughout this early season, it should fall back on the key pillars of strength that  Scheyer emphasized to continue to win. If it strays away from its advantages, Duke will set itself up for more difficult games. Thankfully for the Blue Devils, they played to their strengths against Delaware, turning a relatively close game into a blowout.

Although Duke maintained its lead throughout the second half, it was still in the single digits up until 11:20 remaining. Junior guard Jeremy Roach grabbed the Blue Devils' second-consecutive offensive rebound and went straight up for the and-one layup to put Duke up 57-47. On the other end, Delaware missed on a 3-pointer and Lively grabbed the rebound after several taps. Duke pushed it to the other end, and graduate wing Jacob Grandison converted on a 3-pointer of his own. Duke was not done—sophomore guard Jaylen Blakes stole a pass on the next play and slammed it home to cap off an 8-0 run, cushioning the Blue Devils' lead to 15 in a game that they would run away with for the rest of the second half.

“We really know that we can get them on transition defense, we know we could outrun them and outplay him,” said Lively. “We knew as soon as we get the ball moving, get us moving, playing together, we’re gonna win. So that was the goal. And I think we executed very well.”

Duke’s explosive sequence perfectly captures the areas that this team can rely on: its defense, size and bench. Its defense was much stronger in the second half, holding Delaware to just 22 points and 0-of-9 shooting from 3-point range.

“They were hitting a lot of threes, so you got to limit that,” said Blakes. “We let a lot of straight line drives to try to prevent that and letting them get in our paint, so I think we did a very good job of that second half. We're a very good defensive team—the first half we weren’t that great, but second half, we were a lot better.”

Duke came in with another tremendous height advantage, with multiple seven-footers in the starting lineup. Against Kansas, the Blue Devils were still outscored in the paint 48-42. That was not the case against Delaware, as they outscored the visitors in this category 46-26 and outrebounded the Blue Hens 47-25. 

To this point, Duke has often coupled its size advantage with poor performance in other categories—against Kansas, for example, it took 21 3-point shots but only converted on three of them. Taking tough shots from distance over easy baskets at the rim relieves the opponents, but Duke had much better shot selection Friday, this time converting on 6-of-14 3-pointers.

As Duke’s rotation continues to take shape, its bench will solidify into a solid scoring group. The return of Whitehead in Friday's game gave a glimpse into the team's depth, but in the first half, Duke only managed to outscore Delaware by two in bench points. During the second half, it is no coincidence that the Blue Devils' lead became insurmountable thanks to the variety of players contributing. Duke outscored Delaware in bench points 18-6 after halftime. Grandison went 4-of-4 from the field for 10 points total, and he was joined by Blakes with nine points along with Whitehead and Ryan Young, each of whom scored six. With so many different offensive weapons, Duke has a ton of players to rely on to take it to the promised land.

“We're gonna find things out about everybody,” said Scheyer. “And literally, everybody there on the court stepped up in different ways tonight, and we feel that's something we can do and that's sustainable.” 

Duke is rounding into form, and Scheyer will continue to find the best lineup to win more games. It will not be easy for this roster to find its footing this year with new faces. Chemistry will take time, but it is much easier once the group shares certain points of emphasis. If the Blue Devils can rally around these areas during this early season, they will get off to a great start.

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