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Mike Lopresti | | February 17, 2019

Tracking Duke basketball through its grueling February schedule

Behold, the gauntlet for Duke.

Eighteen days in February, six ACC games, four of the opponents ranked this week in the top 16. There will be four road games, against teams with a combined home record of 45-7.

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We know a lot about Duke. How the No. 2 Blue Devils have not wandered from the top four spots in the rankings all season. How they’re fourth in the nation in scoring, but also sixth in field goal percentage defense, first in blocked shots and third in steals. How they’re 5-1 against top-15 opponents, and their only two defeats were by two points, and four in overtime. How no highlight show is complete without a Zion Williamson dunk making the backboard shake, and he has become such a phenomenon, it often gets overlooked that RJ Barrett is the Duke freshman leading the ACC in scoring.

But we’re about to find out even more. By the night of Feb. 26 — after plowing through Virginia, Louisville, North Carolina State, North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia Tech, with their current combined record of 105-29 — the Blue Devils could be the most ferocious looking juggernaut in the land, with March approaching. Or not.

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Here’s the Duke February Journal, to be regularly updated.

Friday, Feb. 8

First up, Virginia II, set for the next day. It’ll be hard to match last month in Durham, when Duke won 72-70 in a game that looked like what it was — a collision of two No. 1 teams on twin peaks, the Blue Devils atop the Associated Press poll, the Cavaliers atop the coaches. They combined to shoot over 51 percent, with only 16 turnovers between them. And the Blue Devils were doing that without injured point guard Tre Jones.

“They don’t get much better than that,” Krzyzewski said that day. “If you scored, you beat good defense. If you didn’t score, good defense beat you.”

Jones is back, but this one’s in Charlottesville, where the Cavaliers are 11-0. The spotlight is on, but then, it always is.

“We always get a great deal of attention but this year it’s gone to another level,” Krzyzewski said on the Duke website, understanding that starts with his mega-hyped freshmen, especially Williamson. “RJ is playing every bit at that level, but some of Zion’s stuff is really off the chart, because you haven’t seen it before. We’ve handled it really well. That’s part of winning. If you want to be able to win the whole thing you have to be able to handle stuff like that.”

And so they begin.

Saturday, Feb. 9

LeBron is in the house for the rematch. So is Virginia legend Ralph Sampson, which reminds us of this painful piece of Charlottesville trivia: The case could be made that Virginia was the victim of arguably both the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament (No. 16 seed UMBC last March) and the biggest regular season upset in the history of college basketball (NAIA Chaminade over Sampson’s No. 1 ranked team in 1982).

A little after noon, Duke is named No. 1 in the initial tournament seedings released by the NCAA selection committee. By evening, nobody is arguing with that call.

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The Virginia intent is to jam the lanes and force Duke’s offense to the perimeter, where that Blue Devils’ lousy 3-point shooting percentage can doom them. “That is the scouting report on us now,” guard Tre Jones would say later. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But Duke hits eight of its first nine shots from beyond the arc. RJ Barrett buries his first five. “My players felt it . . . they took advantage of it without any coaching,” Krzyzewski says. After 15 lead changes in their first meeting, there are none in this one, and included in the 81-71 final is the fact the four Blue Devils freshmen have outscored the entire Virginia team. 74-71. There is also a 17-0 blitz in fast break points.

It’s a day for Duke to send a lot of messages.

First, Williamson might get the national hullabaloo, but Barrett can be every bit as destructive for an opponent. What does it say that a team has two forces like that? And Cam Reddish is heating up, too.

Secondly, now that Jones is back healthy with all his defense and court efficiency, Duke is that much better. “Tre Jones,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett says, “makes them a different team.”

Starkest message of all for the rest of the nation, Duke’s field goal percentage of 57.8 is the best anyone has had against the Cavaliers defense in more than eight years. The Blue Devils’ 61.9 percentage from 3-point range is their best on the road in six seasons. If Duke shoots like that, does anyone really have a chance?

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Monday, Feb. 11.

Big news on the Duke website. Nah, not yet another player of the week award, but an on-line auction for North Carolina tickets! All it takes is cash. Probably lots of it, but that might beat having to spend days and nights eating pizza in Krzyzewskiville.
Also, the latest Associated Press rankings are out and Duke is only 19 points behind Tennessee for No. 1. The Vols go to Kentucky on Saturday. That should solidify their hold on the top spot — or lose it.    
Meanwhile, the Blue Devils head for Louisville Tuesday to take on the No. 16 Cardinals, who are 12-2 at home. Not that the freshmen have seemed particularly fazed by hostile places. Duke is 5-0 on the road for the first time in 11 years. “They’d rather play in a loud environment than a quiet one,” Krzyzewski says on the ACC teleconference. “Some teams don’t like that, I think this group, they like it.”

Two other topics of the day:
Tre Jones is renowned for his defense and floor-leading ways, but now he’s starting to be a more active scorer. As if Duke needs another weapon. Krzyzewski: “I’ve told him you don’t have to take any shots, or you can take 15 shots, but when it’s there, shoot the ball. I don’t think he was actually looking for shots for a long time. That wasn’t a priority for him.”
And RJ Barrett seems to just keep coming, and coming and coming. Ask Virginia for confirmation. Krzyzewski: “He’s got a great motor . . . It’s not just the physical fitness, it’s the mental. Like with pitchers, it used to be that somebody would go nine innings. Now they go six. What made those guys who used to go that far, that’s what RJ is as a basketball player. He’d be a nine-inning pitcher.”

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Tuesday, Feb. 12

How’d all these people in Duke blue get into KFC Yum! Center? An hour before the game, they clog the lower rows, watching the Blue Devils warm up.      

By tipoff, they have scattered and courtside is almost universally in Louisville black. The place is abuzz, right down to the flares of fire during pre-game introduction. And there is word that Kentucky just lost in the last second down the road in Lexington. The vibes are good for the Cardinals.

But not for long. By midnight, Duke has rallied from 23 points down in the final 10 minutes to win 71-69. Krzyzewski has done nearly everything in his four Duke decades, but he has never had a comeback like this.

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It turns out another night of growth for the Blue Devils.

They show they can win a game in difficult circumstances, even when the shots aren’t falling, because they certainly don’t.  The lineup that made 61.9 percent of its 3-pointers against Virginia labors at 25 percent from the arc. This game will require harder labor elsewhere. That makes it a fine dress rehearsal for March.

They show the mayhem they can cause defensively when swarming desperation is added to their length and talent. Louisville has nine turnovers in the last 10 minutes, the Cardinals looking like deer caught in Zion Williamson’s headlights.  “The sense of urgency,” Krzyzewski said, “made the defense work.”

They show they have yet another contributor to the cause. Needing more quickness when Duke goes to a 2-2-1 zone, Krzyzewski calls on lightly used guard Jordan Goldwire. Works great. “We found something, maybe,” Krzyzewski says. Just what Duke needs – another body.

Most of all, the Blue Devils might have been hearing all the recent national raves that they almost can’t lose – except in this game, they nearly do, and probably should have. But they don’t. The freshman trio of Williamson, Cam Reddish and RJ Barret score 62 points. Everyone else from Duke scores nine. “What have we played 24 games?” Krzyzewski says. “They (his freshmen) have played 24 games in their career. So we can still learn a lot."

To do such a thing in a hothouse such as Louisville has the feel of another defining moment for this team. If the Blue Devils are cutting down the nets in Minneapolis in April, this will be one of the nights that can be looked back upon by anyone saying, we knew it was coming, all along.

Friday, Feb. 15

Big game between top-10 powers on the Duke campus the next day. Wait a minute. That’s the lacrosse team. But there’s the matter of the basketball game with North Carolina State, too, which is why the university website gives advice on traffic and parking. The campus isn’t noted for its vast empty spaces. For the first-time visitor, Cameron Indoor Stadium is like the Alamo — you have no idea you’re close to it until you’re on top of it.

The Wolfpack seem eager. “I’m ready for anybody on Duke’s team,” DJ Funderburk is quoted in the Durham Sun. “No offense to them or anything, they have a great basketball team, but we have a great basketball team, too, and they have to lace up their shoes just like us.”

North Carolina State has beaten Duke their last two meetings, and if the Wolfpack can make it three, it would be their longest streak against the Blue Devils in 31 years. They’re also 18-7 and have won two ACC games in a row. Kevin Keatts is 4-3 against top-10 teams at N.C. State. All good signs. But . . .  the last two games against ranked opponents, the Wolfpack scored 24 points against Virginia Tech and gave up 113 to North Carolina. So we’ll see about those shoelaces.

Saturday, Feb. 16

RJ Barrett was throwing up for two days this week. Is that too much information? Not if we want to put in proper perspective how he spends his Saturday night helping the Blue Devils put away North Carolina State 94-78.

He collects 23 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists — and while we’re at it, no turnovers. The fourth triple-double in Duke history, the second under Mike Krzyzewski, the first by a Blue Devil freshman in more than 40 years.

Sick? Who’s sick? “I was shocked he could even practice a little bit yesterday, and then he plays 38 minutes today,” Krzyzewski says. He adds something else on Barrett. “Well, he’s very advanced, he’s very young, and he’s going to be here a very short time.”

Or did he mean his entire lineup? Zion Williamson adds 32 points. “He’s a good (as) advertised, we didn’t have an answer for him,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts says.

So move over, Harry Statham. Who? He retired from Division II McKendree College last year with 1,122 victories. This is 1,123 for Krzyzewski. That makes him the all-time winner for any division, male or female. There is nobody left to pass. Well, except John Wooden for national championships.

With Tennessee’s loss at Kentucky, Duke is on the brink of returning to No. 1, where nearly everyone assumes the Blue Devils should be, anyway. Still, the victory brings up a couple of potential problematic issues.

For the second game in a row, Williamson picks up his fourth foul with more than 12 minutes left. Krzyzewski sits him for six-odd minutes and he makes it to the end, as he did at Louisville. “If we’re going to win something big, your best player is going to have to learn to play with the discipline of four fouls,” Krzyzewski says. But that could be living dangerously in March.

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Also, Duke gets away with another chilly 3-point shooting night — this time 3-for-16. Could that be costly, when it hurts the most? Not if the offense keeps producing 58 points in the paint, as happens this night. There are 28 teams in the nation who don't score that many points total Saturday.

The NBA All-Star weekend might be going on two hours away in Charlotte, but the Blue Devils keep drawing their own VIP list. Last weekend LeBron James, this weekend boxing legend Floyd Mayweather. “Just the Duke effect,” Williamson says.

They won’t lack for national attention their next game on Wednesday. The visiting team in Cameron will be wearing North Carolina blue.