Take of the week: Duke men's basketball is primed for a strong regular-season finish

Dereck Lively II blocks a layup in Duke men's basketball most recent win against Wake Forest.
Dereck Lively II blocks a layup in Duke men's basketball most recent win against Wake Forest.

To say it has been a season of ups and downs for Duke would be an understatement. The Blue Devils are undefeated at home with some big wins against strong teams like Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Miami. At the same time, the squad from Durham has also blown some bad games on the road. Duke lost to a relatively weak Virginia Tech team, was blown out by N.C. State by a whopping 24 points and narrowly escaped what should have been an easy win against Boston College.

It is hard to pinpoint the cause of the rollercoaster season thus far. Injuries have plagued the group, haunting junior captain Jeremy Roach and causing the team’s top two recruits to miss time. Head coach Jon Scheyer is in his first year in the position, and while he has been at Duke in some capacity for a long time now, it still takes time for any new head coach to build a system and develop a team culture. 

The more likely cause than either of those theories, however, originates with the class makeup of the team. With a fully healthy roster, five Blue Devil rookies play consistent minutes. Guard Tyrese Proctor, forwards Dariq Whitehead and Mark Mitchell and centers Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Lively II are all true freshmen, coming straight from their senior years of high school. The young guns simply have not been playing together all that long. They are still learning their roles in the system, how to pass out of double teams and how to support each other on the defensive end of the floor. 

As such, it would be reasonable to take a cautiously optimistic view of the Blue Devils’ future as they continue to march through the heart of the regular season. The key players are showing signs of improvement after early struggles as they learn the college game and become acclimated to Scheyer’s system. There is no reason the Blue Devils cannot turn it around now and become a dangerous team down the stretch and into the postseason, where every game matters that much more. 

One of Duke’s top incoming freshmen this season was Lively, a 7-foot-1 center. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the Philadelphia native seemed to struggle on the offensive end of the floor. Early in the season he could not create his own shot and was heavily reliant on dunks and lobs to score. While those are flashy, they can be hard opportunities to create, and lobs in particular run a high risk of interception by the defense. Combine those struggles with a preseason calf injury and Lively did not score more than five points in his first seven games.

Now, after recovering from his injury and getting some time to acclimate to the increased size and speed of the college game, Lively has become more consistent on both ends of the court. In his most recent game against Wake Forest, he picked up seven points alongside an impressive four blocks. 

Lively has also been more willing to shoot from behind the arc as of late, making one of two attempts in Duke's recent win against Georgia Tech and putting up another against the Demon Deacons, though that one didn't fall. While maybe his stroke is not quite there yet, those deep attempts are demonstrative of Lively’s increased willingness to stretch the floor and take shots from outside the paint. If he becomes a more consistent and willing shooter, the Blue Devils will be that much harder to stop.

The other key piece who sputtered early this season was Whitehead, who has been battling through injury all year. The Newark, N.J., native missed several games at the beginning of the season after fracturing his foot in August, and has missed the last few with another, less severe leg injury. The freshman also struggled early, but as of late he has become a top shooter for the Duke attack. 

Whitehead seemed stuck in the single digits early, not managing to top eight points through his first eight appearances. Since then, he has become the go-to scorer that he was expected to be. In those eight games since, Whitehead has only scored in the single digits twice, against Pittsburgh and Clemson. Most notably, he had a career game against Boston College, when he dropped 18 points and shot 50% from behind the arc.

While the Blue Devils have floundered at various points this season, it feels like they are finally getting their act together. The second- and third-ranked recruits are finding their roles on the team, and with support from Roach as a floor general and Filipowski as a stretch forward, Duke will be as dangerous as ever. While they might not be the team that Blue Devil fans were hoping for in the preseason, Duke is putting up a respectable performance down the stretch, and who knows what will happen in March?

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest of The Chronicle's coverage here, and follow along with the full Rivalry Challenge here.


Share and discuss “Take of the week: Duke men's basketball is primed for a strong regular-season finish” on social media.