At this point in the season, the Blue Devils are what they are.
And in the 76-72 loss to North Carolina Saturday, Duke was forced to go away from its strengths midway through the first half when freshman forward guard Brandon Ingram picked up his second foul.
“Look, for us to win anything substantial, we have to have him and Grayson (Allen) on the court all the time,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Ingram fouled UNC’s Justin Jackson on a jump shot that swished through with 11:22 left in the first half. That put the Tar Heels up 20-9.
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No Ingram hurts Duke on both ends of the floor. Defensively, his 7-foot-3 wingspan makes him the best rebounder, and without him, the Blue Devils had to go to a 2-3 zone for matchup purposes. That made rebounding even more difficult.
Offensively, yes, Ingram can create for himself and get to the rim, and he can hit jump shots, too. But he also affects Duke’s spacing on the court, just by virtue of the attention defenses must give him.
“Not having him out there is bad for everything, because he is really good,” Krzyzewski said. “Even for spacing, the attention that we would draw, wherever he is, gives a little bit more space where someone doesn’t see you.”
The offensive game plan for the Blue Devils is simple: drive to the rim, draw contact, score at the foul line and hit 3s.
“That’s what we do,” Krzyzewski said. “Threes and free throws are how we have to score. You have to figure out your formula. It’s not a computer game.
“We have to do what we have to do. It’s won 22 games. It’s made us a very good and tough team, and that’s what we have to do going forward.”
Duke only made it to the line 15 times against the Tar Heels, which isn’t enough if free-throw shooting is ideally a primary means of scoring. Krzyzewski pointed out sophomore guard Grayson Allen’s line: 29 points on 11-for-28 shooting from the field, but only two free throw attempts.
The Tar Heels, and Marcus Paige in particular, did a good job making life difficult for Allen. The game plan clearly called for Paige to force Allen to drive to his left – as opposed to his strength and preference of going right – and that did limit his effectiveness.
“They did a good job defensively, and I missed a lot of easy stuff that I felt like I should’ve made,” said a frustrated Allen after the game. “But you can’t worry about the shots that you miss.”
Freshman guard Luke Kennard gave the Blue Devils a boost offensively in Ingram’s absence, scoring 20 points on 6-of-13 shooting, including a 4-of-9 mark from 3. Kennard hit two quick 3s after Ingram went to the bench that helped cut a 20-9 deficit to 25-22 in about three minutes, 30 seconds.
Kennard’s contributions were one of the reasons Krzyzewski opted to leave Ingram on the bench for the rest of the first half.
“I would have put him back in in the game in the first half with two (fouls), but then we started—we cut it to three,” Krzyzewski said. “And then in the last two minutes, I thought if we could get out of there with six, eight points behind and start the half—overall, we managed to hang in there after what was not a fluid half for us.”
But the Blue Devils, Ingram included, couldn’t quite overtake the Tar Heels in the second half. Ingram picked up his third foul on the first possession of the second half, and the Blue Devils shot the same percentage from the field. North Carolina dominated the interior, and Duke couldn’t get to the foul line or sink enough 3s to compensate for that.
“The thing for my team, just keep shooting, man,” Krzyzewski said. “I thought for awhile that they passed up a few. Gotta keep shooting, because all of the sudden it can hit. Again, that’s who we are. That’s how we have to fight to win, to do it that way.”