Just five weeks ago, Duke’s streak of 20 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances was in serious trouble. The Blue Devils cleared that hurdle and are expected to welcome senior forward Amile Jefferson into the rotation before the end of the regular season. How good can this Duke team be in March -- and does it have a shot to survive until April?Last night the Blue Devils manhandled Florida State to improve to 21-7 and 10-5 in the ACC. Duke closes the season with home games against in-state rivals Wake Forest and North Carolina sandwiched around Sunday’s trip to Pittsburgh. (ACC officials announced Friday morning they planned to review a play in the final seconds when Duke guard Grayson Allen tripped FSU’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes, which could affect Allen's status for Sunday's game).
The Blue Devils probably won’t win the outright ACC regular season title, something they have not done since 2006 (they are in a three-way tie for fourth), but most bracketologists agree that it’s built a resume worthy of a top four or five seed in the NCAA tournament.
“We’re so pleased to get our 10th ACC win,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “When we were 3-3 and 4-4 we felt we have to do a lot to make the NCAA tournament. And no one ever thinks of that for us because we’ve done it 20 years in a row. It’s almost someone feel like it’s inherited but you have to earn it every year and now I feel like we’ve done that.”
First, return to Jan. 18. Duke lost to Syracuse 64-62 for its third consecutive loss and second in a row in Cameron Indoor Stadium. All three games were decided in the final minute. Each final margin was five points or less. Still, at that point Duke had a rather hollow 14-5 record, a 3-3 Atlantic Coast Conference mark and a daunting backloaded schedule to navigate with a young six-man rotation that was porous on the defensive end.
The Blue Devils plummeted from the national rankings for the first time since the end of 2007 and their fourth loss in five games occurred at Miami on Jan. 25. Making matters worse, Krzyzewski was hospitalized due to illness, and missed a game for the first time in 20 years at Georgia Tech where associate head coach Jeff Capel guided Duke to an 80-71 victory.
Looking back, that win in Atlanta over the offensively capable Yellow Jackets was a turning point. It ignited a five-game winning streak that included victories over top 10 opponents Louisville, Virginia and a remarkable comeback to beat rival North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Duke won back-to-back one-point games for the first time in 70 years.
Thursday's defeat of the Seminoles was Duke’s sixth win in seven games. It’s now 10th in the ratings at KenPom.com. But those battles against talented teams have taken their toll on a thin rotation.
“You can tell our guys are in great physical shape but the emotion that we’ve had to have for these last five games, they’re tired and you could tell.” Krzyzewski said last night after the win over FSU. “This group, they’re diving for loose balls. They’re such a good group. They’re giving me everything.”
In this wild and wacky season where there’s hardly a dominant team and anyone in the top 10 or 15 can look like a national title contender on any given night, where does Duke fit in?
If Jefferson returns soon -- and his teammates told reporters earlier this week that he was practicing but not 100 percent -- he’ll give Duke a huge boost where they need it most, cleaning the backboards and defending the paint.
In his absence, 7-foot senior Marshall Plumlee has been terrific. He leads the ACC, shooting 69.6 percent and is second in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing 14.2 percent of Duke’s missed shots.
But the Blue Devils have been exposed inside, allowing ACC teams to corral 34 percent of their missed shots and shoot 50 percent on 2-pointers, putting Duke near the bottom of the conference in both categories.
Jefferson played only nine games before injuring his foot in a late December practice. He’s the team’s best interior defender, a senior who played an integral role in the team’s national championship a year ago. He was also averaging nearly six defensive rebounds per game and a double-double before the injury.
While Duke used four guards around Plumlee with freshman phenom Brandon Ingram as the de facto power forward throughout Jefferson’s absence. Freshman center Chase Jeter has improved rapidly over the last three weeks, Krzyzewski said last night, and has earned more playing time. The 6-foot-10, 240-pound Jeter played an ACC-best 17 minutes against FSU, providing three points, five rebounds and a block. His emergence gives Duke the option to use a traditional two-post lineup when needed according to the Duke coach and coupled with Jefferson’s return increases the rotation to eight players.
“He’s been a different kid the last three weeks,” Krzyzewski said. “It just wasn’t there.
But the last three weeks it’s been there. So his teammates get confidence in him. They couldn’t have been happier tonight.”
Also, similar to last season, Duke’s young players have improved on defense as the season has unfolded. Three weeks ago, the Blue Devils were ranked in the 120s in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom.com. After holding FSU to 1.00 points per possession last night, Duke climbed to 84th. The Blue Devils have an elite offense that produces more points per possession (1.20) than any team in the nation. They don’t necessarily have to be great on defense to make a run in March, just better than they were during the January slide and improving - which seems to be the case.
What it all means for the postseason is difficult to pinpoint. Duke's young players have grown as they've taken on larger roles in Jefferson's absence. Still, an opponent with a deep frontcourt rotation could send the Blue Devils home on the first weekend. Or they could land in the Final Four for the 13th time under Krzyzewski, which would give him the record outright. Either way that 21st appearance is safe and that was hardly the case last month.