Duke reunited its fabulous four freshmen starters for the first time in two weeks Saturday.
Plug-and-play for the No. 2-ranked Blue Devils, right?
“When you are apart for three weeks or a three games, it’s not like you just come back together,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It takes a little bit.”
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When Saturday’s game with Georgia Tech tipped off, it was the first time in two weeks Zion Williamson, Tre Jones, Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett were on the court together for Duke.
As expected, the Blue Devils beat Georgia Tech 66-53.
What wasn’t expected was the struggle Duke (17-2 6-1 ACC) endured to get to that result.
The Blue Devils scored their fewest points in a game this season. They made just 2 of 21 3-pointers, a frigid 9.5 percent.
Two minutes into the second half, Georgia Tech (11-9, 3-4 ACC) held an eight-point lead.
All this despite the fact that Jones, Duke’s point guard, played for the first time since injuring his right shoulder five minutes into a 95-91 overtime loss to Syracuse on Jan. 14.
He missed Duke’s 72-70 win over Virginia on Jan. 19 and a 79-64 win at Pittsburgh last Tuesday night.
Reddish missed the Syracuse game with flu-like symptoms.
Williamson missed the second half of Duke’s 80-78 win at Florida State on Jan. 12 after being poked in the left eye late in the first half.
Those four freshmen were in the starting lineup for Duke’s first 14 games, going 13-1. Over the last four prior to Saturday, Krzyzewski had to mix and match to cover the personnel losses.
Rather than return to dominant ways against Georgia Tech, the restored Blue Devils stumbled through the game’s first 22 minutes.
“Coach (Krzyzewski) got on us and he told us that we really needed to pick it up or else we were going to lose the game,” said Barrett, who led Duke with 24 points and 11 rebounds but also six turnovers.
Krzyzewski delivered a similar halftime message. Yet, after the Yellow Jackets scored the first six points of the second half to lead 35-27, Krzyzewski thought his team was in a “trance” so he called a timeout to repeat himself.
“It was pretty similar,” Reddish said. “I guess the first time he said he we didn’t believe it. But once we got down eight, we looked at each other and knew we had to get going.”
Naturally with a gifted defender like Jones back in the lineup, Duke turned up the defensive pressure to turn the game around. From 18:00 to 12:03, nearly six minutes, the Yellow Jackets made just one field goal.
Barrett and Williamson (22 points) finally found some space inside against Georgia Tech’s zone defense to score at the rim.
After trailing by eight points with 18 minutes to play, Duke dominated in such a matter that it built an 18-point lead with 2:29 left before winning by 13.
A team known for its lethal transition offense, Duke won despite scoring just seven fast-break “We had transition in the first half,” Krzyzewski said. “We didn’t score. You’ve got to score the basket or score after fouls or both. You can’t come up empty in transition at the basket. You can’t do that because of how hard you worked to get there. We’ll show our guys. You either have to finish or get fouled. I’m not saying we were fouled. We didn’t finish.”
Duke’s coaching staff will use video review to show where the deficiencies were in that area. They’ll also work on improving 3-point shooting. Duke’s dismal effort on Saturday reduced its season percentage from behind the arc to 30.2 percent. That’s 326th in the country.
With travel set for Sunday in advance of Monday’s 7 p.m. game at Notre Dame, there won’t be much time to fix these areas.
But, even so, Duke figures to play better against the Irish. Notre Dame’s 11-9 overall record, including 1-6 in the ACC, shows it isn’t as talented as the Blue Devils.
But, more than that, it will be another game with Duke’s starting lineup together and growing comfortable again.
Duke became a different defensive team without Jones, playing far more zone. On offense, Barrett became a key ball-handler.
Those days are over. Duke is at its best -- well, usually at its best -- with all four of the freshmen available.
That wasn’t true on Saturday. It figures to be true from here on out.