By Jack Drapkin
Before I even discuss how the team has fared, what has gone right and wrong for them in the early going, I want to say how much fun it’s been to watch these guys play. Not since the 2015 title team, granted that was only three years ago, has a Duke team been this much fun to watch. Just like that team, they are never out of a game and always seem to save their best basketball for late. Now at 10-0, can the Blue Devils maintain this style of play and continue escaping with close victories after playing to the level of their competition? Well, if their play against South Dakota is any indication those days may be behind us sooner than we thought.
While we have spent a ton of time early-on this season marveling at Grayson Allen’s shooting prowess and Marvin Bagley III’s innate ability, the Blue Devil defense is still going to be the difference maker for this unit. Defense is a five-man responsibility unlike the offensive end of the court. The Blue Devils have struggled to defend consistently, particularly in the first half of games.
The difference between good and great teams, but also young and old ones is the ability to play with a consistent level no matter the opponent. For these Blue Devils thus far, it seems no matter who the Blue Devils play the first half is going to be close. Much of this is a result of a lack of communication at the defensive end of the court to start games. However, while they gave up a trio of early treys against South Dakota, the defense looked much better in the first half, limiting them to only 30 first-half points. A sign that the defense may be improving in these first half situations.
There is another factor that I would like for you to consider as to why they have struggled to guard in the first half, Coach K. You see, has been experimenting much more often with the man-to-man defense in the first half before switching over to the 2-3 when its needed in the second half. This is not to be misconstrued as a bad thing either. It is essential that the Blue Devils can play at least some man-to-man when they get to ACC play. They will need to play it in case a team gets hot shooting beyond the arc and they need to mix up the look for example. Anyways, Coach K hasn’t had much practice time recently with all of the travel and early games, so look for the man-to-man defense to improve after the first handful of ACC games.
In short, while it’s been fun star-gazing over the early offensive returns of this prolific group, don’t overlook the defense, it may just be the difference between them raising a banner in April or not.