Luke DeCock

Duke, NC State at early ACC crossroads – DeCock

Duke’s Grayson Allen (3) brings the ball up against the Georgia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 4, 2017.
Duke’s Grayson Allen (3) brings the ball up against the Georgia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 4, 2017. cseward@newsobserver.com

The middle of January is awfully early in ACC play for a basketball team to reach a potentially season-defining crossroads. N.C. State is clearly there. Duke may be as well.

With the Wolfpack at 1-3 in ACC play and Mark Gottfried backed into apologizing for his postgame comments after the loss at Boston College, N.C. State’s season is headed down a dark alley if the Wolfpack can’t start turning things around Sunday against Georgia Tech. Things aren’t as dire for Duke, but the Blue Devils’ season has been anything but smooth already, and it doesn’t figure to get any easier as Duke has to head back on the road to Louisville on Saturday after losing at Florida State earlier this week.

Even if it isn’t always the greatest idea for a coach to say he doesn’t care what fans think, there was nothing that required an apology from Gottfried, even the use of a single profanity, something out of character for him and not particularly uncommon elsewhere. The bigger issue with his postgame comments after the loss in Chestnut Hill was that he played what he had to know was a losing hand. Gottfried’s statement that the team is getting better after going from a 51-point loss to North Carolina to an eight-point loss to Boston College was never going to go over well, especially when coming from a coach who hasn’t been shy to publicly criticize his team when it has deserved it.

What Gottfried said may have been what he thought his confidence-shy team needed to hear, but fans still steaming over the Wolfpack’s historic capitulation in Chapel Hill wanted an acknowledgment that the previous two games didn’t come close to meeting the standards of N.C. State basketball, even if it’s never been harder to win on the road in the ACC (and N.C. State is 1-0 at home and back there Sunday).

It’s going to take more than words to turn N.C. State around, anyway. If Dennis Smith Jr. struggles the way he did at North Carolina, and to a lesser degree Boston College, there’s not a lot of upside for the Wolfpack, which has a lot of parts that don’t seem to fit together very well. Gottfried’s teams have historically improved over the course of the season, and the time to get moving in that direction is now.

Duke has, over the course of the season, never seemed to know which of its many parts will be healthy on any given night, and there are increasingly questions about how those parts fit together as well. Between Mike Krzyzewski’s absence due to back surgery, the incredible scrutiny on anything and everything Grayson Allen does (brought entirely on himself, to be sure) and what appear to be developing on-court chemistry issues, this has been a topsy-turvy season for Duke even without the inexorable waves of injuries. Duke has had its full rotation healthy for only two games, and Amile Jefferson left the second injured.

If Jefferson misses Saturday’s game at Louisville – and he is not expected to play – the Blue Devils will miss him not only as a rebounder and inside presence but as a leader. Who knows how long Jefferson will be out, and the Blue Devils need to find a way to beat good teams without him (and Louisville, despite a 2-2 ACC record, is unquestionably a good one). And it still seems odd that Jayson Tatum has become the focus of the offense over Allen, Jefferson or Luke Kennard, who carried the team through the nonconference season and have all been more efficient offensive players.

How well Duke can shake off the chaos, with or without Jefferson, will have a lot to say not only about how the Blue Devils fare in Louisville but for as long as Krzyzewski is out. It’s an important juncture in Duke’s season, although the Blue Devils’ long-term future remains sound. The stakes are a little higher for N.C. State, which desperately needs a win to quell discontent and get things going in the right direction.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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