After losing 68-63 at Clemson, the Blue Devils were focused on what they could control. So the take-home message was reduced to two words.
That will be the goal Saturday against Notre Dame (11-5, 2-2 ACC).
“We just have to be smart,” Matt Jones said. “We know we have a tight bench. For myself and Brandon to pick up fouls like that, it throws us off rhythm. We can’t afford that. We just have to be smart.”
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Playing smarter is something that, in theory, No. 9 Duke (14-3, 3-1) can fix. Pinning the loss on not playing smart enough is more comforting than attributing it to the fact that the Blue Devils only have six players – five guards, one post player – and therefore their margin of error will always be razor-thin. And their collective tiredness will always be high.
Blaming the defeat on losing aggression while playing with foul trouble isn’t realistic, either. That’s just inevitable. A player can’t play defense the same way with four fouls as he can with one. Or, as Krzyzewski put it:
“There is only so much lead in your pencil, you have to be careful how many words you write,” he said. “That’s the game.
“You have to be really smart. It’s tough for a young team to be really smart. It’s tough for any team to be really smart sometimes. But, for a young team, especially when you get a little bit tired and in foul trouble, it’s difficult.”
When looking at the big picture, Duke’s guards have done a good job of limiting their fouls committed. None of them average more than 3.4 fouls per 40 minutes (the exact numbers: Derryck Thornton, 3.4; Luke Kenanrd, 3.1; Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram, 2.8; Matt Jones, 2.6).
Center Marshall Plumlee averages 4.2 fouls per 40 minutes. As the defender closest to the basket, it makes sense that he would foul more often. The problem, though, is that Duke has no depth behind him. Chase Jeter, who picked up five fouls in four minutes at Clemson, averages 9.2 fouls per 40 minutes, an apt indicator of how lost he looks defensively.
“Moving forward, that’s something we have to learn, to deal with foul trouble because we don’t have a lot of depth,” Plumlee said. “And everyone needs to be prepared to play smart and play through it.”
Fouling less, especially at dumb times like with 1.6 seconds left in the first half, would help Duke play smarter. So would making more free throws. For the year, the Blue Devils have shot fairly well from the line, making 72.3 percent of their attempts. Against Clemson, though, they went just 2-for-7 (28.6 percent) and missed the front-end of two one-and-one opportunities.
So in games where one of the Blue Devils’ guards is uncharacteristically foul-prone (Ingram had three fouls in the first half alone) and the team doesn’t shoot near its average in some regard, winning will be tough given the existing depth issues.