As the saying goes, if you live by the three you die by the three. Although it is a bit extreme of a label to plaster onto the ninth-ranked Blue Devils at this point in the year while the season is still young, it should serve as a traffic sign of a road to traverse with caution.
Six games into Duke’s season, and there have already been glimpses of a desolate future where the three ball elicits its downfall. That is not to say that the Blue Devils are an offense that is 3-point focused and over-reliant on their shooting, as they are merely middle-of-the-pack in the ACC in attempts from deep. That is to say, however, that when their shot from distance is not falling, they are a completely different team.
That reality was especially apparent in Duke’s 80-62 win against Southern Indiana Friday evening. The final score is a bit deceiving, as the Blue Devils trailed for nearly half the game, and even when they had the lead they allowed the Screaming Eagles to remain within striking distance. The main takeaway was that this was a tale of two stories, two halves and two very different Duke teams with very different shooting success rates.
“They played harder than we did at the beginning,” said head coach Jon Scheyer after the game. “I think that's pretty clear … and that's disappointing. That's not acceptable.”
Southern Indiana looked like it wanted it more than Duke in the first half, and whether that lack of urgency was a result of poor shooting or the cause of it, that certainly derailed the Blue Devils. They went 1-for-8 from three in the opening 20 minutes, missing seven in a row after making their first. It was almost as if they were trying to use it to set the tone early in the game, as they shot it from deep in three of their first four attempts. When that aspect of their game began to fail, it was like a plague that spread to the rest of the performance; the energy was down, the defense was lethargic, the offense was completely flat.
“We were giving them layups like crazy,” Scheyer said. “We've been good defensively. Clearly, still not where we need to be by the end of the year, but we're making strides. And I thought that showed where our heads were at, just giving layups in transition, letting guys get behind us. That’s not how we’ve played.”
A switch flipped at the half and the Blue Devils roared back with an 11-0 run. This was highlighted by two threes in that stretch courtesy of freshman guard Jared McCain. Duke found its stroke and went 4-for-10 from behind the arc in the second half, resulting in it outscoring the Screaming Eagles by 22. Senior guard Jeremy Roach and sophomore center Kyle Filipowski combined for 31 points in the final 20 minutes, and their performances between the halves perhaps best represents the difference between the two Duke teams on display Friday evening.
“I think our energy for sure, holding ourselves more accountable,” Filipowski said when asked about the difference between the two halves. “There's no reason we should have played the way we did in the first half.”
The discrepancy in the Blue Devils’ performance between the two halves was not solely due to their shooting, as they improved in every aspect, particularly in their defense. However, there is something about this team that seems to be locked behind a stroke of good shooting. If we go back to their previous game against La Salle, they similarly had a slow start that correlated with poor deep shooting. They went 2-for-9 in the first half, only outscoring the Explorer’s by 10, but then went 7-for-13 in the second half, and outscored them by 19.
Going back even further to Duke’s loss to Arizona, it went 2-for-12 in the first half where it was outscored by eight, and then 6-for-11 in the second half, where it outscored the Wildcats by three.
It may seem like common sense that a team’s performances will always correlate to its 3-point shooting. But in that same game, Arizona’s better half was actually when it shot worse. There is not always necessarily a correlation, but with Duke there seems to be one.
So, what does this mean for the team moving forward? The sample size is still relatively small, but if this trend persists, it could be possible that the Blue Devils’ confidence and ability to win games is heavily tied to their ability to reliably hit threes. If that is the case, then they need to focus their confidence on the other facets of the game that they will always be able to control, like defensive intensity, aggressiveness, physicality and energy. Those are all mindset dependent, not dependent on shots falling favorably.
Filipowski was visibly frustrated at his shooting in the first half Friday, but once he shifted his mindset at the break, he said, he came back as the best version of himself.
“I was slacking a lot in the first half,” Filipowski said. “The guys come off the bench, especially late in the first half, they provide a big spike for us going into halftime … Just seeing that, I think that just shows I got to work harder for them as well.”
Shots will not always fall, and no matter how good a team or player can shoot, there will always be off nights. So if Duke’s confidence is in mastering the more controllable intangibles at a high level, that confidence should not waver. This is a self-fulfilling cycle of playing at one’s best on any given night under any given circumstance, and how the Blue Devils can make the turn away from the road of living and dying by the three to the road that leads them to the heights they want to reach.
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