It has been easy to be critical of Duke over the last month since Ryan Kelly went down with injury. The Blue Devils haven’t been the model of consistency and looked vulnerable in that stretch.
Duke stumbled out of the gate with a loss on the road to NC State. They then arrived back in the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium and continued to struggle, at least for a half, against Georgia Tech before putting the Yellow Jackets away in the second half with a strong performance.
At that time I thought that Duke was turning the corner but the very next game out, a road trip to Miami, the Blue Devils suffered on of the most humiliating losses of the Mike Krzyzewski era; playing some of the worst, most uninspired basketball of the season. Three games into the post Ryan Kelly era and Duke was 1-2 and not looking good.
Several reasons caused the struggles. Kelly’s ability to pull opposing big men away from the basket to guard him freed things up in the lane for Mason Plumlee to operate and for Duke’s guards to drive and make plays. Defensively, Kelly was a big problem for opponents and was a big asset in Duke’s transition defense. Without him all those mismatches and advantages went away.
Plumlee struggled with more consistent double teams, freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon was mired in a shooting slump and fellow freshman Amile Jefferson didn’t quite look ready for prime time against the bigger more experienced Miami players.
Things began to change though in the next game against Maryland. Duke came out as many expected following the lopsided loss to the Hurricanes and simply destroyed the Terrapins in Durham. The Blue Devils shot 50 percent and executed much better overall. Sulaimon shot lights out and the game was never in doubt.
The following game Duke slipped against a woeful Wake Forest team and clung on to win 75-70 in a game that could have flipped the Blue Devils season upside down. They never seemed to be able to get control or put away the pesky Deacons on their home court leading to some serious concerns for the next game against Florida State in Tallahassee where Duke had only managed to go 5-4 since the 2002 season.
But almost from the opening tip the Blue Devils showed some moxy and took Florida State out of the game scoring the first 11 points and never looking back. It was a performance that gave Duke fans some hopes given how much they have struggled in games played at Florida State and how shaky they’d looked in road games.
Duke then returned home again in a rematch with NC State and a chance to get a level of revenge on the Wolfpack after they handed the Blue Devils their first loss of the season.
The Blue Devils did something against NC State that they hadn’t done much of if at all this season; they started out strong. Duke jumped out to a quick lead and built it up to more than 20 points before the Wolfpack made a run late to make the game much closer down the stretch.
Still Duke fans have to be optimistic about the growth shown especially since the Blue Devils were even more shorthanded against NC State with Josh Hairston sitting out. The Blue Devils got a bit of a lift from Alex Murphy off the bench who played with more confidence when he was in the game. Jefferson didn’t set the world on fire but did well on the boards and got a big put-back in the second half when the Wolfpack were making a run.
Quinn Cook has been playing very well of late, taking care of the ball but also finding his shot in the process. He scored 21 points against the Wolfpack and hit some big shots when NC State attempted their comeback.
Sulaimon had a decent game as well, as the freshmen continue to step up in Kelly’s absence. It is a positive especially if Kelly can return before the end of the regular season and has a chance to reintegrate into the lineup.
Plumlee over the last few games has also started to reassert himself and has played stronger in the post of late. Duke has also has been shooting lights out even on the road against Florida State, something that had been a major concern for the Blue Devils after poor shooting performances against NC State and Miami in road games.
Duke gets a chance to build on their recent road success when they travel to Boston College on Sunday. It is a game Duke will be expected to win but needs to show they can continue to build and get better.
At then point though, even if Kelly doesn’t return sooner than later the Blue Devils are starting to show signs of finding their footing without their star senior captain, once again showing Mike Krzyzewski knows what buttons to push and more times than not pushes them in the right order.
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