It’s officially panic time for Duke basketball after another stupifying loss for the Blue Devils who appear headed for an early NCAA Tournament exit.
The ACC gave us one of the best games of the entire season on Tuesday night when Wake Forest beat Duke in double-overtime.
This was the second time in less than a week Duke lost on the road to an inferior team. Prior to their losses to Wake Forest and North Carolina State, Mike Krzyzewski’s team was in the hunt to win their first ACC regular-season title since 2010 — a year when Duke cut down the nets.
After this latest loss, Duke may see their regular-season title drought continue as the doubts about their success in March grows. KenPom still thinks Duke is one of the best teams, checking in at No. 5 and they are tied for the fourth-best title odds with Louisville, according to The Action Network.
But I don’t trust this team.
Everyone knew there was going to be a massive roster turnover in Durham with R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson heading to the NBA after their freshmen seasons. Yet, Duke’s recruiting class ranked third, behind Memphis and Kentucky, and was headlined by two top-10 recruits (Vernon Carey Jr. and Matthew Hurt).
They also had Tre Jones returning for a sophomore season. Things were set up for this team to do some real damage and make up for failing to reach the Final Four despite arguably the most talented roster Coach K had since Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill were winning titles in the early 90s.
Now, things aren’t looking as rosy as March Madness closes in upon us. Duke is no longer the favorite to win the ACC and their recent play has exposed some major flaws within this team. The biggest among them is they become a different team with Carey Jr. off the floor. Granted, if you take the best player off any team there should be a noticeable difference. However, for the Blue Devils, they are even more exaggerated.
The freshman from Florida is an unstoppable force combined with an immovable object in college basketball. The defensive attention, he commands it makes the game easier for everyone else on the court. Particularly Jones, who has improved from 26.2 percent to 33.3 percent as a 3-point shooter, but is still more effective when he can knife in and out of the paint getting layups, drawing fouls or making the pass to beat a moving defense.
Coach K did a better job of surrounding their interior presence with perimeter shooting this time than they did for Zion but the team isn’t exactly lights out either. In their two latest losses, they shot a combined 10-for-40 on 3-pointers. This has been the biggest weakness for the team for years.
The win-or-go-home nature of the NCAA Tournament can spell trouble for any team in March. This group will likely see a barrage of zone defenses during the big dance. If they have one bad night then they will be heading home rather quickly.
Another issue for Duke in two of their last three games is stopping opposing point guards. Jones is no slouch on the defensive end. He’s been hounding opposing ball handlers with relative ease during his two seasons in college. But that didn’t stop Markell Johnson or Brandon Childress from leading their teams to wins.
Johnson was on fire all night long in Raleigh (including going 5-for-6 on 3-pointers) and Childress got going late to lead Wake Forest over the finish line. The other similarity is both are seniors. Their experience came in handy for their underdog squads.
More often than not, teams have to play the top seeds in the early rounds also have veterans running the show for them. The mid-major ranks are filled with teams who will be itching to make a name for themselves by taking out Duke.
The trust factor with Duke is gone. The days you could feel confident about picking them to go to the Final Four are gone. It’s just as likely they don’t make it to the second weekend than they make it to the Final Four.
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