An ugly stretch got uglier for the Blue Devils on Thursday, as the team lost again in their first start since a stunning defeat at St. John’s, this time to the suddenly surging UNC at the Dean Dome. A crisp early pace and a visible advantage in natural playmakers seemed to foretell a Duke victory, and Blue Devils held a 45–42 advantage following a freewheeling first half. All of that changed after the Tar Heels began the second frame with a blistering 16–2 run, eventually holding on for an 82–78 win on the strength of Kenny Williams’s hot shooting night and a dominating performance on the offensive glass. In what was a wildly entertaining game, the Blue Devils by and large played far better and with much greater energy than in the defeat at St. John’s. Still, a loss is a loss, a losing streak is a losing streak, and Duke’s weaknesses on defense continue to haunt them as we move toward March.
A Sunday matchup at Georgia Tech proved a useful tonic, as the Blue Devils largely dominated an over-matched Yellow Jackets team 80–69. Playing without star freshman Marvin Bagley, who sat out with a knee sprain, Duke jumped all over their opponent and led by as many as seventeen in the first half. For the second consecutive game, Coach K got a meaningful contribution out of reserve sophomore center Marques Bolden, and senior guard Grayson Allen led the team in scoring for the first time since early December, notching twenty-three points and six assists. A tough Georgia Tech team fought hard in the second half but could get no closer than ten, and the Blue Devils left Atlanta feeling better about themselves than when they arrived.
The Good News
Against Georgia Tech, Bagley’s presumably minor knee sprain forced Coach K to tinker with his lineup for the first time in weeks, and the results were somewhat revelatory. In addition to Bolden getting significant minutes, freshman guard Alex O’Connell was given the start over Trevon Duval and acquitted himself well enough that the move could be \permanent. Meanwhile, a galvanized Duval, who has struggled with turnovers and looked uncomfortable of late, played his best game in a couple of weeks coming off the bench. Forced back into a high-leverage role, Allen seemed to recapture some of his old offensive magic. The recent struggles have required Coach K to get under the hood on this frustrating and uber-talented team, and what he learns may prove invaluable come March.
The Bad News
Losses in three of their past five games dropped the Blue Devils all the way down to No. 12 in the AP polls, with a tough slate of games on the horizon. Tonight they host sneaky-tough Virginia Tech, fresh off the Hokies upset of No. 1 UVA, followed by a road game at No. 11 Clemson. Bagley’s injury is not thought to be serious—his status for tonight’s game is uncertain—and missing him short-term has allowed others the opportunity to step up. Should his wonky knee prove more problematic heading into tournament time, however, the Blue Devils’ chances at a deep run will be significantly diminished.
Season in The Balance?
With six games remaining in the regular season, everything is still on the table for the Blue Devils and their 2018 campaign. Even with their recent struggles, Duke is projected as a No. 2 seed going into the NCAA Tournament, and a challenging schedule will surely provide the opportunity to improve upon that. However, it is easily as likely to imagine the team going the other direction, as they continue to struggle with defensive efficiency and rebounding. Starting with Virginia Tech tonight, it’s time to see if this talented and vexing group has another gear. We’ll know much more a week from now.