Here’s bad news for the rest of the NCAA Tournament bracket: Duke is back.
Oh, were the Blue Devils ever gone? Not exactly vanished from the radar screen, maybe, but they did lose three of four in one stretch, and the defense leaked like a bad roof, and people were starting to wonder. Not anymore. That collection of ballyhooed newcomers who made Duke No. 1 by acclimation last November and the feared scourge of the season? Lot of water under college basketball’s bridge since then. Freshman orientation appears to finally be over. The Blue Devils are 24-5 and have won five in a row.The roller-coaster ride in the Associated Press rankings took them from atop the poll the first month, to as low as No. 12, now back to No. 5. “We’re getting a lot better,” Grayson Allen said the other day. “We’re just becoming more of a team.”
They might answer all that lavish promise yet. Duke’s surge by the numbers, each a warning shot for March:
17: On Feb. 8, Duke was beaten at North Carolina to drop to 7-4 in the ACC, followed by the news freshman phenom Marvin Bagley III would miss time with a sprained knee. He was out four games. It had the feel of a moment of truth, but the Blue Devils won all four by an average of 17 points. Moment passed. By the way, Bagley is now back.
113: After 15 games, Duke was 248th in the nation in points allowed (and last in the ACC). Now the Blue Devils are 113th. They were 105th in field goal percentage defense. Now they’re 14th. That’s what you call trending upward.
“We’ve gone up tremendously because we’ve been working on it,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “When we didn’t play defense, remember it was during that time that we didn’t practice. We had exams, one game, break, and then boom, 96 points, 93 points.”
52.3: Yes, Duke coughed up 89 points to Boston College, 96 to North Carolina State, 93 to Florida State. Krzyzewski soon came up with the idea of going to the zone. He might be 71 years old, but he’s not too old to change, when he’s losing games 96-85. Now the Blue Devils have held four consecutive ACC opponents under 60 – an average of 52.3 actually – something they had not accomplished since Krzyzewski’s first season in 1981-82. They had never won four consecutive league games doing that. They limited Syracuse to 16 points in the first half and 44 all night Saturday. “We talk better in the zone, we’re more unified in the zone,” Krzyzewski said.
Know who has noticed that? The guys trying to beat Duke. They figured they had enough problems just dealing with so many high school All-Americans, and now the Blue Devils are throwing a zone at them, with all that height and length?
“In a short period of time, they’ve turned it into a major defensive weapon,” Louisville coach David Padgett said.
“I don’t think that Coach K should really be allowed to play zone,” joked Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, a noted guru on the defense. The Syracuse zone might be the second most renowned sight in western New York, behind only Niagara Falls.
“They’ve worked on it and it’s progressively gotten better,” Boeheim said of the Blue Devils. “I saw them earlier in the year against Virginia, and it wasn’t very good. But they’ve used it now a lot, and the more you use it, the better it gets.”
24: Allen went through a period of struggle when he was held to single digits in six of 10 games. In losses to Virginia, St. John’s and North Carolina, he shot a combined 6-for-24. But when Bagley went down, Duke needed more of the old Allen, which he promptly provided, averaging nearly 24 points in Bagley’s four games away. Bagley returned Saturday night, Allen scored six. Oh, well.
But when defenses are worried about stopping him outside, they’re distracted from dealing with Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr. inside. Which is one reason why Duke averages 86 points a game.
72.8: That’s the percentage of scoring now supplied by first-year Blue Devils. Some places, freshmen carry the equipment. At Duke, they’re carrying the load.
27: Welcome to the Durham branch of Dunk City. That’s how many the Blue Devils have had the past two games.
33: Double-doubles by the Bagley-Carter combo. One or the other, or both, always seem to be adding to the total.
1: Free throws missed this season by Gary Trent Jr. in the last five minutes of regulation or overtime. He’s taken 30 of them. What’s that old mantra in close games – foul the freshman? Not him. He’s also shooting 44.1 percent from the 3-point line to lead the nation among freshmen.
Add up all those numbers and what do you get? A disquieting thought to the rest of the national championship-seeking world. It’s crunch time soon, and Duke seems to be getting ready.