Continuity and preparation are popular buzzwords around Duke’s basketball program these days.
The Blue Devils, as a whole, have been short on both this season.
Over the past month, though, at least Duke’s ball handlers have been healthy, on the court and in practice for the most part.
Once the nation’s No. 1 team, Duke (18-5, 6-4 ACC) is now ranked No. 18. Yet the Blue Devils still have eyes on winning their sixth national championship.
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The guys handling the ball the most have a chance to help carry Duke in that direction, starting with its home game against rival No. 8 North Carolina (21-4, 9-2) on Thursday.
“A big thing is just having the guys there all the time and healthy,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Monday. “Over the last four games, our assist-to-turnover ratio has improved.”
Guards Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Matt Jones and Frank Jackson are Duke’s main ball handlers, with freshman small forward Jayson Tatum also in the mix.
They’ve all played in the nine games since Allen missed Duke’s 89-75 loss at Virginia Tech on Dec. 31 while serving a suspension. So continuity is beginning to trend in their direction.
In ACC play, Duke has turned the ball over on 18.2 percent of its possessions. That’s 11th in the 15-team league.
The Blue Devils had more turnovers than assists in three consecutive games — losses at Florida State and Louisville and a comeback win over Miami.
As Krzyzewski pointed out, however, the Blue Devils have improved in that category lately. In the last four games, Duke has had more assists than turnovers three times. The Blue Devils have had 64 assists and 42 turnovers.
The best performance came in last Saturday’s slow-paced 72-64 win over Pittsburgh, when Duke had 19 assists and just eight turnovers, the fewest turnovers Duke has had in an ACC game this season.
“I think they are getting more and more comfortable with one another,” Krzyzewski said.
This season and last, Duke’s offense has run without a true point guard. That’s based on personnel. When the Blue Devils had Tyus Jones in 2015, he ran the offense that carried Duke to a national championship.
Last season, Allen and Brandon Ingram were Duke’s top scorers so the ball was in their hands more than anyone else.
“For the last couple of years we have not run the so-called point guard offense because the guy who led us in assists last year was Grayson,” Krzyzewski said. “We had multiple ball handlers to include Brandon Ingram.”
This season, Allen, Jackson, Kennard and Jones have shared those duties. Tatum, after missing the season’s first eight games with a foot injury, has asserted himself as well.
According to KenPom.com’s advanced statistics, Tatum has been responsible for ending 26.6 percent of Duke’s possessions while he’s on the floor.
Completing a play means he either took a shot (make or miss), committed a turnover or attempted a free throw.
Tatum’s rate is the highest of any Duke player. Compare that with Allen (24.9) and Kennard (22.1).
Jackson and Jones have distributed more — completing 19.6 and 13.0, respectively.
Yet Allen leads Duke in assists (84), with Kennard (59) the closest player to him. They are also Duke’s top two scorers, with Kennard averaging 19.8 points and Allen 15.8.
Duke’s offense runs through both of them, with Tatum (15.8 points) also a key factor.
Jones and Jackson are becoming complementary players to those three.
Now that they are all practicing and playing together, with Krzyzewski coaching again after his own seven-game absence due to back surgery, the Blue Devils are in position for those roles to continue to solidify with March Madness just a month away.