Duke Now

Does this Duke team have the confidence and swagger of the 2015 champions?

Blue Devil senior Grayson Allen (3) celebrates during win over Evansville at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham on December 20, 2017.
Blue Devil senior Grayson Allen (3) celebrates during win over Evansville at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham on December 20, 2017. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Grayson Allen believes there are similarities between this Duke team (12-1), ranked No. 4 in the country, and the one that won in it all in 2015.

Allen recalled a stretch in 2015 when Duke had struggled. Duke started the 2015 season 14-0 before losing two straight games in conference play.

After losing those two games – to N.C. State and Miami – by a combined 28 points, Duke won 13 of its next 14 games to end the regular season. Allen said the Blue Devils did that by improving their defense.

“I can point to that freshman year, when we started playing defense and our defensive numbers and stats improved,” Allen said. “And that is when we became a truly dominant team and one of the best teams in the country, and that’s why we finished as the best team in the country.”

The Blue Devils gave up more than 72 points only three times in that 14-game stretch. Two of those games went into overtime. The other was an 84-77 win over North Carolina.

This Duke team has a long way to go in order to achieve that. Defense has been its biggest issue all season and was one of the reasons it lost to Boston College, 89-84, on Dec. 9. The Eagles went 15-for-26 from behind the 3-point line during that game.

But on Wednesday against Evansville (10-3), Duke took the first step to becoming a better defensive team. After 10 days without a game, Duke practiced its defense. It seemed to pay off.

For an eight-minute stretch late in the first half, Duke held Evansville without a field goal, and the Blue Devils proceeded to go on a 21-1 run. That pushed Duke’s already 12-point lead, to 32 points. Duke scored 39 points off of 21 turnovers it forced. It also forced Evansville to shoot 30 percent overall from the floor.

The Blue Devils gave up a season-low 40 points against the Purple Aces. Duke won 104-40, its biggest margin of victory of the season.

It was Duke’s last non-conference game until February. Until then, it will enter conference play, where the games only get tougher. Its next game will be against No. 24 Florida State (11-1) at home on Saturday.

When asked whether he thought this team had the confidence and swagger of previous championship teams, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know if they have that because they are too young to know what that is,” he said in sit-down interview with The N&O prior to the Evansville game. “Now do they have confidence in themselves? I think they do. And they need to have confidence in themselves based on achievement and habits, not just to have confidence in themselves. Because we could be 12-0 or 7-5. That’s how I feel.

“I don’t think until we lost, that they ever really believed that they could lose. Even when they were down, they weren’t supposed to lose.”

He said now it’s time for this team to develop habits and to understand what it means to be the target. He said Duke is going to get everyone’s best shot.

“So by far, that’s the best Boston College played that game,” he said. “By far it was the best Indiana played, and the best their crowd was. So get accustomed to it. A lot of the times, the team you see in the scouting report or on tape, those guys are different.

“The other thing is that they’re playing with house money so to speak,” he added. “And if they lose to us, it’s not going to be a big thing. But if they win, it’s a big thing.”

Krzyzewski said the 2015 team had freshmen who were “different, smart players.” But it also had veterans Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones.

“The fool’s gold is about someone ranking you when you haven’t done anything,” Krzyzewski said. “And the story then is about you losing, not you winning and where are you at now, and what about predictions. Well, we didn’t make any of those predictions. And to be able to follow your own journey based on all that outside stuff, hopefully we show the maturity to be able to do that.”

Jonathan M. Alexander: 919-829-4822, @jonmalexander