When the Blue Devils arrived back on campus the morning of Dec. 26, the coaches were ready with their message. There wasn’t much tough love as a result of their last game, the 77-75 overtime loss to Utah. Instead, all the vibes were positive.
“We fought in that game, we can build on that with ACC play around the corner,” Matt Jones said of the takeaway message from Utah. “I knew we had to just keep pushing and keep moving forward to learn from it.”
Off two days of practice, the Blue Devils accomplished what they needed to Monday night against Elon, scoring 70 first-half points in their 105-66 rout. That was the third-highest scoring half in Duke’s history (the high is 72, twice, against against Virginia in the1964-65 season and Harvard in 1989-90). The game was so lopsided that coach Mike Krzyzewski told his team not to run any fast breaks in the second half.
Obviously, that type of game isn’t a predictor of what ACC play will hold for No. 15 Duke (10-2). But there is value in these final tune-ups for this squad as it finds its way without injured forward Amile Jefferson, who won’t be back until late January at the earliest. The Blue Devils play Long Beach State (6-8) on Wednesday at 4 p.m. in their final nonconference game.
“What we’ve tried to do, since we don’t have a second big, is – I don’t know if you can tell – but our spacing is even better,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re going to use that lane to keep our big a little bit lower and just try to play a little bit different style of basketball. It’ll be good for this team and we’ll see if we can play good enough defense to hold our own.”
Duke’s strength is definitely in its perimeter. Brandon Ingram, with his 6-foot-9 frame and 7-foot-3 wingspan, is a matchup nightmare. It won’t be quite as easy as it was against Elon, as he blew by defenders off the dribble at will, but he’ll be able to shoot over nearly every opposing guard or get by slower power forwards drawn away from the basket. And once Grayson Allen is finally freed from the lingering affects of the flu – he’s down about eight or nine pounds from being sick, Krzyzewski said – he will be a problem on the perimeter, too.
“I was definitely feeling a little winded at the beginning there from being sick the past week and not being able to do a lot of running,” Allen said.
The Blue Devils have potential, as Monday showed, but maximizing it will take a concentrated effort on the part of the coaching staff. Without Jefferson, Duke needs to prioritize keeping the rest of its seven rotation players healthy. And not only healthy, but fresh, so wearing players out in practice would be counterproductive.
Instead of making practices physically challenging, the coaching staff tests the team mentally. There’s little full-court action in order to save the Blue Devils’ legs. But the action periods do move quickly from offense to defense, and the staff makes sure the players pick up on offensive or defensive calls quickly.
“We’ll score, and then we’ll go straight to defense,” Jones said.
For veterans like Jones and Allen, this is a familiar way to practice, as Duke operated in a similar fashion at the end of last year with its eight scholarship players. And for the freshmen, who don’t know any different anyhow, it is certainly a test of focus.
“We’re just making sure that they’re always on their toes,” Jones said.
As if the coaches needed any help doing that.