Its nonconference schedule nearly complete, No. 2 Duke entered an extended break having shown many traits that could make it a champion this season.
The Blue Devils (11-1) were No. 1 in the country according to both the NCAA’s new NET rankings and Ken Pomeroy’s ratings on Dec. 21, the day after the Blue Devils toppled Texas Tech, 69-58, at Madison Square Garden.
No, Duke has not yet played a true road game. Those are coming, though. Duke plays at Wake Forest on Jan. 8 and at Florida State on Jan. 12 as it gets into the ACC schedule with the arrival of the new year.
The Blue Devils are ending a stretch of 15 days without playing a game. Following the win over Texas Tech, Duke’s players scattered to celebrate the holidays with their families. The team’s next game is Saturday at home against Clemson in the ACC opener.
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Over the season’s first 12 games, Duke has proven to be strong on both offense and defense. According to KenPom.com, the Blue Devils are No. 2 in offensive efficiency with a 119.8 rating and No. 3 in defensive efficiency at 86.9 Duke is the only team in the country in the top five in both categories.
Unbeaten ACC rival Virginia (No. 4 in defense, No. 8 in offense) is the only other team in the country among the top 10 in both categories.
So the Blue Devils should rightly consider themselves among the teams legitimately chasing a national championship.
Here’s a look at what the Blue Devils have shown so far, a look at their best traits and they things that could be worrisome come March.
Good: Duke’s defense looks elite
From Tre Jones hounding opposing ball handlers to Zion Williamson and Marques Bolden blocking shots at or above the rim, Duke is a tough team to score against.
The Blue Devils are first in the nation in blocked shots per game (8.0) and third the nation in steals per game (11.5).
Duke’s opponents have made just 28.3 percent of their 3-point shots, leaving the Blue Devils No. 21 in the country in 3-point defense.
“A really good defensive team,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said after his team lost to the Blue Devils. “I think because they have the hall-of-fame coach and great players, everybody talks about the talent, the offense. It’s tough defense. They make it very difficult for you to run your offense and it kind of turns into a dribble-drive type of game.”
Jones sets the tone out front with Williamson and Bolden proving to be excellent rim protectors in help defense. Cam Reddish and Jack White have shown strength as one-on-one defenders as well, with Reddish able to use his length to deflect passes and create steals.
“An emphasis on our defense is a big part of our identity and really an emphasis that we could be one of, if not the, best defensive team in the country,” White said.
Bad: Duke’s shooting woes are concerning
The Blue Devils have made 49.3 percent of their shots from the floor this season, good for 20th in the country. But, lately against the better teams they have played, the shooting hasn’t been that good.
Duke shot only 38.3 percent, making just 3 of 20 3-pointers, while beating Texas Tech. In the 89-87 loss to Gonzaga in Maui, Duke shot 43.1 percent and made five of 13 3-pointers.
Even in games Duke won easily there were tough stretches offensively.
The Blue Devils shot just 40 percent in the first half of an 84-54 win over Hartford on Dec. 5. While beating Yale. 91-58, three days later, the Blue Devils shot 43.2 percent in the first half. For the game, Duke made 5 of 21 3-pointers (23.8 percent).
Reddish’s field-goal percentage is down to 37 percent overall and 35.6 percent of his 3-pointers.
Now that ACC play is here, especially in games against Virginia, Florida State and Syracuse, shot making will play a big role in Duke’s success.
The coaches are stressing that players make an extra pass to get an even better shot during a possession. We’ll see if their work in that area during the 15-day break between games makes a difference.
“We haven’t been shooting as well as we would have liked especially with the players we have,” White said. “We have a lot of really good shooters. The coaches have been going over film a lot and realized we haven’t been getting those good looks that we emphasized over the summer. Standstill 3s will be huge, especially with teams converging on the middle so we can’t be driving and creating.”
Good: Crashing the offensive glass
Even when they miss, the Blue Devils are adept at keeping possessions going.
Duke is No. 4 in the country in offensive rebound percentage, according to KenPom.com. The Blue Devils have grabbed 40.1 percent of available offensive rebounds. Williamson (15 percent) and Bolden (11.8 percent) have contributed the most in this area.
Williamson averages 3.8 offensive rebounds per game, helping him lead the team with 9.4 total rebounds per game.
Bolden plays fewer minutes than Williamson and only averages. 3.8 rebounds per game. Yet he has the same number of offensive rebounds as he does defensive (23 each).
This ability has helped Duke overcome its struggles with perimeter shooting by creating more opportunities to score.
Bad: Suspect free throw shooting
The area Duke has struggled the most so far has nothing to do with the opposition. The Blue Devils are shooting 67.9 percent from the free throw line. That’s 235th among the nation’s 351 Division I men’s basketball teams.
White has made 15 of 19 free throws (78.9 percent) and is the most accurate among the team’s rotation players. Reddish is close behind at 78.4 percent (29 of 37).
Williamson (72) and Barrett (69) have far and away the most attempts but they aren’t taking full advantage. Williamson is shooting 70.8 percent while Barrett is at 65.2.
When Duke has the ball and the lead late in close games, Jones figures to have the ball in his hands. But he’s only shooting 61.9 percent from the line (13 of 21).
Duke is among the nation’s most efficient and potent offenses, averaging 91.6 points per game (No. 4 nationally).
But, according to KenPom.com, Duke’s has only scored 18.8 percent of its points at the free throw line. That’s No. 211 nationally. More accurate free throw shooting can make an already great offense even better and clear up what is so far the Duke’s most glaring weakness.