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Jonathan M. Alexander | The News & Observer | February 21, 2018

What's in store for No. 5 Duke with four games left?

DURHAM –– The Duke basketball players sat side by side in their lockers after the loss. Their heads were down and no one had bothered to get up to shower by the time the media had walked in.

Usually after a game the players are up and moving. This was different.

Duke had just lost to its rival North Carolina. It was the Blue Devils' second straight loss, and its third loss in four games.

MARCH MADNESS SHOP
A few days earlier, on Feb. 3, Duke had lost 81-77 at St. John's. After the game, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had questioned the team's play, calling it "disgusting."

"No matter what we said, nothing worked with our team," Krzyzewski said at the time.

Over the course of seven games, (from Jan. 15 to Feb. 8), Duke was turning the ball over an average of 13 times per game, and couldn't keep opponents off the offensive glass.

In the 82-78 loss at UNC on Feb. 8, freshman forward Marvin Bagley III, Duke's top scorer and rebounder, suffered a right knee sprain and would miss the next three games.

The Blue Devils had to make a change.

MORE: Duke on the rise in latest AP Top 25 poll | Andy Katz's Power 36

Krzyzewski and Duke's coaching staff shuffled its starting lineup for the first time all season. Freshman point guard Trevon Duval didn't start. Freshman guard Alex O'Connell started instead. Senior Grayson Allen moved to point guard, and Duval has played off ball when the two played together. The coaches also decided to use zone as its primary defense.

Since those changes — and without Bagley — Duke has won three straight: at Georgia Tech 80-69 on Feb. 11; at home against Virginia Tech 74-52 on Feb. 14; and a 66-57 win at then-No. 11 Clemson on Feb. 18.

No. 5 Duke (22-5, 10-4 ACC) now sits alone in second place in the ACC behind No. 1 Virginia. Last week, before Duke's three-game win streak, the NCAA Selection Committee predicted Duke to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, which starts in mid-March.

Heading into Duke's home game against Louisville on Wednesday, one of the biggest topics will be the return of Bagley. On Monday, Krzyzewski said Bagley is improving, but Duke has not said when he'll return.

"I'll know more today," Krzyzewski said early Monday afternoon when asked whether Bagley would play Saturday against Syracuse. "We haven't practiced yet...But he's getting better and we're going to make sure that he's completely good before we get into March. And that may mean he plays."

The Blue Devils have four games left in the regular season. Three of those games will be at home, including a March 3 rematch with UNC.

Here's a game-by-game look at the rest of Duke's schedule:

Louisville, Feb. 21

Louisville's record: 18-9, 8-6 ACC

Louisville's RPI: 51

Louisville's Kenpom ranking: 36

Kenpom projected percent chances of winning: Duke 86, Louisville 14

Kenpom projected score: Duke 87, Louisville 75

JMA's take: Louisville's season could have gone south after the school fired coach Rick Pitino. But interim head coach David Padgett has this Louisville team competing. Louisville has one of the best defenses in the country. However, it has struggled keeping opponents off the offensive glass. Duke is the best in the country at attacking the offensive glass.

Syracuse, Feb. 24

Syracuse's record: 18-9, 7-7 ACC

Syracuse's RPI: 38

Syracuse's Kenpom ranking: 45

Kenpom projected percent chances of winning: Duke 88, Syracuse 12

Kenpom projected score: Duke 78, Syracuse 65

JMA's take: Zone defense will be on full display in this game. Syracuse is known for its 2-3 zone, and Duke has recently decided to use zone as its primary defense. So far it has worked. Syracuse's defense gives up 94.2 points per 100 possessions, which is 11th best in the country. Syracuse is likely a bubble team right now, needing some big wins to get in.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Is Oklahoma in danger of missing the NCAA tournament?

At Virginia Tech, Feb. 26

Virginia Tech's record: 19-8, 8-6 ACC

Virginia Tech's RPI: 55

Virginia Tech's Kenpom ranking: 34

Kenpom projected percent chances of winning: Duke 67, Virginia Tech 33

Kenpom projected score: Duke 85, Virginia Tech 80

JMA's take: The last time the Blue Devils and Hokies played, on Feb. 14, unranked Virginia Tech was coming off a big road win at top-ranked Virginia. Duke played its most complete game of the season and beat Virginia Tech 74-52. But that was at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke has played its best basketball. This game will be tougher with it being in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech is 12-3 at home.

North Carolina, March 3

North Carolina's record: 21-7

North Carolina's RPI: 5

North Carolina's Kenpom ranking: 7

Kenpom projected percent chances of winning: Duke 73, UNC 27

Kenpom projected score: Duke 89, UNC 82

JMA's take: The Tar Heels are hot right now, riding a five-game win streak. UNC, which has one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, took advantage of Duke's struggles with defensive rebounding the last time these two teams played on Feb. 8. UNC had 20 offensive rebounds, and rebounded 42 percent of its misses. The Division I average is 29 percent.

Duke has since shown improvement in that area, but that will be a focal point the next time these two teams meet in Durham. The two teams are currently neck-in-neck for second place in the conference.

This article is written by Jonathan M. Alexander from The News & Observer and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.