Having dealt with the reality of injuries and illness to key players last month followed by the resumption of normalcy in the aftermath, Duke finds itself in position to claim top seeds for next month’s ACC and NCAA tournaments.
The next three weeks, after Tuesday night’s game with Boston College, will challenge that standing.
Having played a string of games against teams in the lower half of the ACC standings, Duke faces the league’s top teams, beginning Saturday at No. 3 Virginia. No. 16 Louisville, No. 8 North Carolina, Syracuse and No. 11 Virginia Tech lie ahead on the schedule.
The Blue Devils’ quest to remain among the nation’s elite became tougher when they played four games over a two-week stretch last month missing at least one starter. From Zion Williamson’s vision issue after getting poked in the eye to Tre Jones’ scary shoulder injury to Cam Reddish’s flu, the Blue Devils could have stumbled.
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But they didn’t and the Blue Devils (19-2, 7-1 in ACC) enter Tuesday’s game with Boston College the Las Vegas favorite to win the NCAA championship.
Part of the reason is all the talent Mike Krzyzewski amassed to fill this season’s roster.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen individual gifted talent like that come through our building at multiple spots,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said after the Blue Devils hammered his team 83-61 in South Bend, Ind., last Monday. “They’re really gifted.”
Another reason Duke was able to fight through its roster upheaval was a favorable schedule.
The Blue Devils adjusted on the fly to beat No. 3 Virginia, 72-70, in the first full game Jones missed with his separated shoulder. It was an impressive performance for Duke on its home court after Krzyzewski and the coaching staff made adjustments with Jones out.
An easier stretch
After that game, though, the Blue Devils faced a stretch against teams occupying the bottom half of the ACC standings.
The Blue Devils have league wins over Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame since that Virginia game. Those three teams are a combined 7-20 in ACC play.
Duke pounded St. John’s, 91-61, in a non-conference game last Saturday.
Boston College (11-9, 2-6 in ACC) completes the relatively soft portion of Duke’s schedule.
It’s been a nice run of games for the Blue Devils to first play without Jones -- as they did while winning at Pittsburgh, 79-64, on Jan. 22 - and then re-adjust to his return to the lineup over the last three games.
Duke trailed early in the second half before beating Georgia Tech 66-53 in Jones’ return on Jan. 26. Two nights later they easily won at Notre Dame.
“When we lost Tre for three games, whatever habits we had before then, they are not solid yet and when you adjust and adapt with him not being in there,” Krzyzewski said after the Notre Dame win. “But now he is back and the kids are working at it.”
Room to grow
In Saturday’s 30-point win over St. John’s, the Blue Devils looked closer to the team that had grown into prior to mid-January. Duke was ranked No. 1 and looked like the nation’s top team before Williamson missed the second half of a Jan. 12 win at Florida State after being poked in the eye, Reddish missed the Jan. 14 Syracuse game with flu-like symptoms and Jones was injured that same night.
Duke lost 95-91 to the Orange but has reeled off five wins in a row since then.
“We have room to grow, definitely,” Krzyzewski said Monday. “With a young group we’ve played 21 games and we’ve played 18 of them pretty much with the group. Or 17 of them. So we are still growing. The main thing we are is we are back to good health. Our kids did a great job with those injuries except the Syracuse game….We reacted well once we had a few days to react and then now we are back to being in good health. Hopefully we can stay there and continue to get better.”
Boston College would need a major upset to keep Duke from its 20th win and a six-game winning streak Tuesday night.
Virginia, Louisville loom
After that, Duke’s schedule ramps up dramatically with serious tests.
The Blue Devils play back-to-back road games at Virginia (20-1, 8-1) on Saturday and Louisville (16-6, 7-2) on Feb. 12.
Duke has home games with N.C. State (16-6, 4-5) on Feb. 16 and North Carolina (17-4, 7-1) on Feb. 20. That’s followed by road trips to Syracuse (16-6, 7-2) on Feb. 23 and Virginia Tech (18-3, 7-2) on Feb. 26.
Those six opponents have already posted an average of 17.2 wins. Virginia leads the ACC and four of Duke’s other opponents during the stretch are within a game of the ACC lead.
Four of the games are on the road.
When the stretch is done, Duke will have only three regular-season games left prior to the ACC tournament.
Currently positioned to claim a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils can solidify that placement or see their possible seeding fall.
Duke enters it armed for success.
-- RJ Barrett (23.1 points) and Williamson (22.3) are the ACC’s top two scorers.
-- Duke is No. 4 in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. Only Virginia (No. 2 in defense, No. 5 in offense) joins Duke in the top five both categories. Michigan State (No. 6 offense, No. 9 defense) is the only other team in the country in the top 10 in both.
-- Jones leads the ACC in assists per game (5.6).
-- Jones, Williamson and Cam Reddish are all tied for second in the ACC at 2.1 steals per game.
-- Duke leads the nation in blocked shots with 157 (7.5 per game).