Looking at this Duke team over the course of the season, it is obvious that defense has been its identity, while the offense has lagged behind. For a team of top recruits, a veteran point guard and some notable transfers, this is not what many would expect. Yet the Blue Devils have seemed to struggle to find an offensive rhythm in a majority of their contests, and when the defense has been unable to maintain its high level of play, the team has struggled.
In all of the team’s five losses, the Blue Devils shot below 40% from the field or below 30% from 3-point range. Both happened in five games this year, and they shot below 20% from three in four games.
However, Saturday was not the same story.
In their 68-66 win against No. 17 Miami, the Blue Devils’ defense was the one to falter against an explosive Hurricane offense, but the Duke attack stepped up and powered the team to a win. At the end of the day, the stats support the claim, but what was most impressive was the look of the offense. They picked up the pace when they could and slowed it when they had to. Extra passes to open shooters who knocked down their shots showed calmness, while smart drives with tenacious efforts to grab offensive rebounds boosted energy.
“I was proud of our offense. I thought we came out really clicking and sharing the ball. Shoot, we had 38 points at half,” head coach Jon Scheyer said. “[I’m] proud of our defense, but really our offense, the way we shared it. We didn’t really have turnovers just by being careless with the ball, it was more just learning how to play through contact and play through resistance.”
It has seemed, for most of the season, that Duke is trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing. But with captain Jeremy Roach returning, all the pieces were there Saturday, and Scheyer assembled the whole picture just in time for the matchup with a ranked opponent.
Before hitting a slight skid midway through the second half, the Blue Devils were shooting 8-of-15 from deep to match their 49% shooting from the field. Even Miami’s high-powered offense could not keep up. When Dariq Whitehead nailed a half-court heave as the shot clock was expiring, it became apparent that everything was falling for Duke.
Perhaps even more imposing, though, was why Duke was able to shoot such a high percentage. Decisive passing and unselfish play across the board contributed significantly to how the Blue Devils navigated the strong Hurricane defense. All in all, Duke finished with 19 assists on 25 made shots, in comparison to Miami’s 10 on 22. The 19 assists tied a season-high, but the assist-to-field-goal ratio was the team’s best all year.
“I still say at some points in the game we were kind of getting a little antsy trying to go one-on-one and stuff like that,” Roach said. “But we definitely were moving the ball [well], trying to get driving kicks … [and] just find an open man, just making it easy as possible.”
It is hard not to give partial credit to Cameron Indoor Stadium. On the day of its 500th consecutive sellout, the arena was rocking. Tenting season led to a completely jam-packed student section, and it was hard to find a seat that was not filled out in the stands. The Blue Devils are now 10-0 when playing at home this season, and the players were clearly drawing energy from the crowd as Kyle Filipowski and Tyrese Proctor would occasionally signal to the roaring students.
“I love it. I love it,” Filipowski said about the intensity of the stadium. “Cameron doesn’t hold that many people, but it’s the loudest in the country for sure. That just shows how special it is, how great the fans are, how great the students are. [I] couldn’t ask for a better group.”
“I already knew this was going to be a big-time game. Cameron Crazies were lined up, so we already knew what kind of day it was going to be,” Roach said. “Saturday afternoon in Cameron? You can’t wish for nothing better than that.”
Having Roach back is certainly a boost to the shape of the offense. All season, the Blue Devils have been battling injuries and illnesses, and for so long, it has seemed as though they could not field a team that was ready to play together.
“I thought this was a step …” Scheyer said. “Now with [Roach] back and getting guys acquainted with playing with each other again, I think we can just still get so much better. I really do. I think the sky’s the limit for us.”
Duke has a tough schedule coming up. Following this game, it heads to Blacksburg, Va., for a difficult matchup against Virginia Tech. Following another road game against Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils have to face North Carolina, Miami and No. 10 Virginia in an eight-day span, with the latter two being on the road.
Maintaining this style of offensive play is going to be crucial for the Blue Devils to get through that stretch with more wins than losses. And if this is, in fact, the new-look Duke team, the country could finally be seeing what caused it to be the preseason No. 7 squad.
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