In what has been a wild ride of a 2018 season, the Blue Devils capped off arguably their most impressive weeklong stretch of the campaign with convincing victories over pesky Virginia Tech and eleventh-ranked Clemson. The Hokies rolled into Cameron last Wednesday fresh off a stunning road win at No. 1 Virginia, and coupled with Marvin Bagley III's third-straight absence, the contest appeared ripe for a nip and tuck affair. After a back and forth beginning, however, Duke put the pedal down with a 7–0 run to end the first half and rode the wave of momentum to a 74–52 second half laugher.
The impressive display was made more so as the Blue Devils appeared to address some of the persistent weaknesses that have held the team back from reaching its full potential thus far. Having settled more or less into playing zone full-time, Duke produced one of their best defensive efforts of the year, holding Virginia Tech to 43 percent shooting and stifling the Hokies during the second half. A vexing tendency to give up offensive rebounds finally showed signs of abating, as the Blue Devils allowed just three, as opposed to sixteen in the previous game against Georgia Tech. Finally, senior guard Grayson Allen went off for twenty-five points, hitting 7–15 from behind the three-point stripe and generally resembling the early season form that made him a dangerous weapon in a deep arsenal.
Many of the positive trends continued on Sunday, as the Blue Devils turned in another impressive defensive effort at Clemson, frustrating the Tigers during a hard-fought 66–57 victory. With Bagley sitting again, the formula was much the same. Allen led the way with nineteen points, and Gary Trent Jr. overcame a tough day to nail three clutch free throws down the stretch to all but assure the victory.
The Nitty Gritty
Duke's big week vaulted the team all the way back up to No. 5 in the AP rankings, and once again the Blue Devils appear to be a team with Final Four-or-bust ambitions. With three games remaining in the regular season, they will look to keep the momentum heading into tournament time. A home game against Louisville tonight followed by a visit to Syracuse does not appear overly perilous, but return engagements with Virginia Tech at Blacksburg and a season-ending home game against a suddenly red-hot UNC team will give a good indication as to whether the recent improvements are the consequence of sustainable modifications or an enticing mirage.
The Good News
The crucial development, of course, is the sudden improvements on defense. On a team overflowing with offensive firepower, the oftentimes lax and disorganized approach to defense has been the Achilles heel which always appeared in danger of foreclosing any opportunity to go deep into the NCAA tournament. Following a handful of impressive performances, the Blue Devils suddenly rank forty-third in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency, thirty-six spots higher than was the case following their loss at North Carolina. That's not great by any means, but with the elite firepower Duke possesses on the offensive side of the ball, it may well be enough. It took until deep into the season, and at times it appeared it wouldn't happen at all, but Coach K seems to have found something workable by switching to zone more or less permanently.
The Bad News
You know you've had a good week when the bad news involves your best player returning from injury, but the Blue Devils will need to do some heavy thinking about how best to reintegrate Marvin Bagley once he is able to return. Grayson Allen specifically seems to be a different and far superior player with Bagley off the floor, having led the team in scoring the previous three games and appearing much more like the swashbuckling long-range threat that has typified the bulk of his career in Durham. Bagley is a special talent, and Duke likely can't win a title without him, but the Blue Devils desperately need to keep Allen involved when he is once again no longer the first option.