Duke and Syracuse had trouble scoring on Saturday because both teams’ zone defenses stifled the other. But Duke was just a little better and beat Syracuse at Cameron Indoor Stadium 60-44.
Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III returned from a mild knee sprain that had kept him out the previous four games, and scored 19 points in 31 minutes.
And, No. 5 Duke (24-5, 12-4 ACC) never trailed in this game.
Here are five takeaways from the the Blue Devils’ win over the Orange (18-11, 7-9 ACC).
1. Marvin Bagley III did not disrupt Duke’s chemistry.
The idea that Duke is probably better without Bagley is unreasonable. Bagley has been Duke’s best player this season. He averages 21.1 points per game and 11.2 rebounds, which leads the ACC in both categories.
On Saturday, he picked up where he left off. He scored 19 points and grabbed 7 rebounds in 31 minutes.
Duke’s Grayson Allen had no trouble connecting with Bagley. He threw two alley-oop passes to Bagley, including one from halfcourt. That got the crowd on its feet.
“I’ve gained a lot of confidence as a passer,” Allen said. “I think I’ve gotten much better over my career and it makes it a little easier when the guys on the team who are 6-10 can jump 40 inches.”
Duke didn’t score much, but that can be credited to Syracuse’s defense, which runs a 2-3 zone. It slowed the pace of the game. Combined with Duke’s zone, both teams had fewer possessions that normal.
Duke’s offense does change some with Bagley back in the lineup. And Duke is just trying to get readjusted to that.
“Getting Marvin back, we’re trying to figure that out,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s a nice thing to figure out. He played really well.”
2. Bagley is 100 percent
Bagley injured his knee in the first half of Duke’s 82-78 loss to UNC. He said it happened around the seven-minute mark of the first half when he tried to go up for a rebound. He said he continued to play through the injury despite pain in his knee. The next day, he said his knee continued to bother him.
He said over the next week he continued to rehab it.
“That was the reason that I sat out a lot of the games – to make sure that I was ready to come back and play a lot like that,” Bagley said. I felt pretty good, I felt 100 percent, and I felt myself. That was the reason I took my time because I didn’t want to come back too early and have to worry about it and keep coming out. I wanted to be 100 percent.”
That’s good news for Duke.
3. Duke’s Wendell Carter is becoming more of a force
It seems that as the season has progressed, Carter has continued to improve. He scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against Syracuse. He also had four assists, two blocks and four steals.
Carter is especially a force on the defensive end. He’s the last line of defense in Duke’s zone, and he has done a good job of blocking and altering shots. He’s been equally as good on offense too. He and Bagley together are hard to stop in the post. The two had a couple of connections on Saturday.
4. Krzyzewski using more bench
Krzyzewski has used his bench a lot more, especially in recent games. Earlier in the season, there would be games where the reserves would barely play, part of that due to injuries. Sometimes they wouldn’t score any points.
But sophomore forwards Javin DeLaurier and Jack White, and sophomore center Marques Bolden are giving Duke good minutes off the bench, especially on defense.
The reserves were able to give the starters breaks at times during the game. DeLaurier played 17 minutes. Bolden played 12 minutes and White played 7 minutes.
That will be necessary as Duke heads into conference play and into the NCAA tournament.
5. Duke finally has it figured out on defense
Duke hasn’t given up more than 60 points in four straight games. That’s the first time the Blue Devils have done that in school history.
Against Virginia Tech on Feb. 14, Duke gave up 52 points. Against Clemson on Feb. 18, Duke gave up 57 points. Against Louisville on Feb. 21, Duke gave up 56 points. And against Syracuse, Duke gave up only 44 points. All of those performances have resulted in wins.
“I think if you take away the first three conference games that we had, and kind of an outlier has been St. John’s, we’ve played really good defense,” Krzyzewski said. “You can look at all the stats. We’re in the top three or four in just about everything in our conference, and, nationally, we’ve gone up tremendously because we’ve been working on it.”