On Sunday at Georgia Tech, Duke’s coaching staff made a change to something it had used all season: its starting lineup.
Freshman point guard Trevon Duval, who had started every game this season, was replaced in that lineup with freshman guard Alex O’Connell. Senior guard Grayson Allen started in Duval’s spot and O’Connell started where Allen normally would. Sophomore center Marques Bolden started in place of freshman forward Marvin Bagley III, who missed the game with a right knee sprain. Freshman forwards Gary Trent Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. filled out the starting five.
That lineup worked, associate head coach Jeff Capel said Monday. Duke started the game with a 9-0 run against the Yellow Jackets, even without Bagley, the Blue Devils’ leading scorer. The Blue Devils won 80-69.
Capel said that the coaching staff thought that was the best decision for that particular game. He said they also wanted to get the game off to a good start. O’Connell has been working to prove himself, while Duval has been struggling recently – especially with turnovers.
“Alex played well at practice,” Capel said. “He played well over at North Carolina. And just to give him a shot and try something different.”
Prior to Sunday’s game at Georgia Tech, Duval, who’s 6-3 and 186 pounds, had turned the ball over 25 times in the past seven games, starting with five times against Miami on Jan. 15. Some were unforced turnovers.
Sunday was the first time all season that Duke started with a different lineup other than Duval, Allen, Trent, Carter and Bagley. Coming off of consecutive losses at St. John’s (81-77) on Feb. 3 and at No. 21 North Carolina (82-78) on Feb. 8, it was time for a change.
“You know we had lost two games in a row,” Capel said. “We had lost 3 out of 4 and so we felt like we needed to do something different.”
“But that was the reason,” he added. “Just to see something different and to see if we could have improvement and to get a win.”
Duval showed some improvement on Sunday, turning the ball over only once in 25 minutes.
“For me it’s just something that I guess I got to just be ready for when I get in the game,” Duval said of coming off the bench. “It doesn’t make a difference. I played a good amount of minutes. I finished the game, so it doesn’t really matter if I start or not.”
“As long as I finish the game and we win the game, that’s all that really matters.”
Duval said he thought he played “OK” on Sunday. He said he’s trying to do a better job of finding his teammates. He said he feels he can get the post players more touches and find Allen and Trent for more open shots.
“And run the team,” he said. “Become more of that floor general.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he thought Duval played his best game in a while. He finished with 9 points (4-for-8) and 5 rebounds. Krzyzewski also said Duval hit the biggest shot of the game: a 3-pointer that halted Georgia Tech’s run.
Georgia Tech had cut Duke’s 25-point lead to 12 points with a little more than seven minutes remaining. Krzyzewski called a timeout. On the next possession, Allen found Duval, who hit the three from the corner.
Duval coming off the bench also meant Allen played mostly at point guard.
Allen said he felt comfortable doing that. Despite running the point guard position, he was able to score. He led the Blue Devils in scoring with 23 points. It was the first time he led the team in scoring since Duke’s 96-80 win over South Dakota on Dec. 2.
Allen, however, didn’t shoot well from the floor. He was 5-for-14 from the field, but he attacked the basket and was 10-for-10 from the free throw line.
Capel said he liked the way Allen played at point guard, but he wasn’t sure whether they would continue to start O’Connell and bring Duval off the bench as the Blue Devils head into their game Wednesday against Virginia Tech.
“That’s something that will be evaluated and we’ll talk about and figure out what’s best suited for our team for this particular game,” Capel said. “Grayson did a good job and we certainly got off to a very good start down there. But no disrespect to Georgia Tech, but Virginia Tech, they provide a different type of challenge. And so we’ll figure out what’s best for this particular game and proceed in that manner.”
Capel said O’Connell is a player who brings energy to the team, and he’s been most effective on defense.
“And that’s because of his activity and playing hard, getting deflections, getting in passing lanes,” Capel said about O’Connell.
O’Connell, a 6-6, 171-pound guard, is averaging 4.6 points per game and 12.3 minutes per game. He is also shooting 52 percent from the floor.
He was instrumental in Duke’s run early 9-0 in the first half against Georgia Tech, and its 10-1 run to start the second half. He finished with 3 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 22 minutes.
“I was excited, you know, coming back home being able to start in front of my people,” said O’Connell, who is from Roswell, Ga., which is about 22 miles north of downtown Atlanta. “And it was just something that I was looking forward to. And I knew I had to bring energy and be an impact right away from the tip.”