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A basket shy of perfection through 10 games, Duke now has a chance to get even better

Ten games in and three points from perfection, Duke’s basketball team is rolling along just fine it takes a break from games.

The No. 3 Blue Devils whipped Yale 91-58 on Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, improving to 9-1 behind 30 points from R.J. Barrett and 20 from Zion Williamson.

Duke opened the season Nov. 6 by walloping then-No. 2 Kentucky 118-84. It’s lone loss was an 89-87 setback to now-No. 1 Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational championship game on Nov. 21.

Having played 10 games, including three top-10 opponents, in 33 days, the Blue Devils will only play two games -- Dec. 18 against Princeton and Dec. 20 against Texas Tech -- between now and Jan. 4.

With a chance to take stock of his team, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he’s happy with how the group is progressing.

“For them to pay attention to the things we want them to work on,” Krzyzewski said. “They have. So they listen and they want to do what we want them to do. So we’re better. If we stay healthy, we’re going to get better because they have good attitudes, they have great chemistry, they believe in us. I believe in them. We have all the intangibles. We just have to get the experience of playing.”

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The Blue Devils have displayed offensive prowess, with Barrett and Williamson both routinely at or above the 20-point mark in scoring.

They’ve proven to be a solid, if not spectacular, defensive team. After limiting Yale to 35.4 percent shooting while forcing 23 turnovers, Duke lowered its points allowed per game average to 65.7.

The Blue Devils can bring strength off the bench with junior Jack White, the 6-6 forward who contributed 12 rebounds, nine points, three steals and two blocked shots in 25 minutes against Yale.

The Yale win also allowed Duke to display some versatility. For the first time this season, Krzyzewski used a different starting lineup as Javin DeLaurier replaced Marques Bolden.

That move was designed to make Duke more nimble on defense. The 6-10, 234-pound DeLaurier has a lateral quickness advantage over the 6-11, 250-pound Bolden. Having DeLaurier on the court with the four freshmen allowed Duke to switch defensively at all five positions when necessary.

In other words all five players were capable of guarding any of the five players Yale had on the court without a mismatch appearing that would favor the offense.

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Duke guard Tre Jones (3) and Yale guard Jalen Gabbidon (0) scramble for a loose ball in the first half of play at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

The result was another stifling performance on the defensive end for Duke. The Blue Devils recorded 16 steals, the sixth time in 10 games and the fourth game in a row they’ve had 10 or more steals.

“I think we did a great job,” DeLaurier said. “We forced them into a lot of turnovers. We really did a good job. We are really buying into this defense. I think we are going to keep getting better and it’s going to be pretty scary.”

The Blue Devils handled their business in their last two wins playing veteran teams that are expected to do well in their conferences. Hartford, the America East Conference team Duke beat 84-54 on Wednesday night, starts five seniors. Yale, from the Ivy League, started three seniors and two juniors.

In both games, it took Duke until the second half to pull away and coast to the wins. But the Blue Devils showed patience and stayed with their game plan both times.

“They are picked high in their conferences,” Krzyzewski said. “So we felt that with the young team we have, even though we should be more talented, that we wouldn’t be as experienced playing together so it would hasten our development, our maturity, as a basketball team.”

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Duke guard Tre Jones (3) reacts as teammate guard Alex O’Connell (15) slams a dunk through the basket against Yale in the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

After a break from games while the players take final exams, Duke plays another veteran team when Princeton comes to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Dec. 18. That’s followed quickly with another ranked opponent, Texas Tech, two days later on Dec. 20 at Madison Square Garden in New York. The No. 13 Red Raiders, an NCAA tournament Elite Eight team like Duke last season, are 8-0.

“This has been good for us,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ll get to see who we are before we take a break for Christmas and then analyze what we’re doing and make the appropriate adjustments as we get into the ACC.”

League play begins on Jan. 5 at Wake Forest, when Duke will return to the court having not played a game in two weeks and two days.

By then, having had plenty of practice time with only the Princeton and Texas Tech games on the schedule, the Blue Devils have the chance to be even better than they’ve already shown.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.
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