Duke’s lowest final KenPom ranking in the 21st century is 19th in 2012. That team was 26-4 in the regular season and earned a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Blue Devils have as many national titles this century as finishes outside the KenPom top ten (three of each).
Duke is the bluest of blue bloods. A year outside the top tier of the ACC is considered a disaster. A seed lower than 3 in the NCAA Tournament is a once in a decade phenomenon.
Predictably, the weirdest college basketball season in memory has also developed into a down Duke year. The Blue Devils are just 5-4, coming off back-to-back road losses to unimpressive ACC foes. The casual college basketball fan is eager to kick the oft-maligned Dukies out of March’s NCAA Tournament with two months remaining before Selection Sunday. But are things really that dire in Durham?
Yes, this Duke team is not up to Coach K’s usual standard. They have major holes all over the roster, don’t deserve a Top 25 ranking, and will not be a factor to reach the Final Four. Yet I’m not so sure we should be writing them off as an at-large team or a pushover in ACC play.
To date, Duke’s four losses have all come to top 60 teams, with two of those losses coming on the road in conference. Duke’s best wins, at Notre Dame and Boston College at home, are certainly less notable than its losses.
On the other hand, Coach K is essentially coming into this season with a brand new roster. The Blue Devils’ nine contributors are one senior, one junior, two sophomores, and five freshmen. This makes Duke the 4th least experienced roster in college basketball per KenPom. Despite that, the Devils have managed top 50 efficiency rankings on both offense and defense.
This team is not the disaster they’ve been purported to be. Yes, this is a down year by Duke standards. There are maybe two programs that can relate to those levels of expectations, Kentucky and Kansas. For any other school, this current Duke team would not be an anomaly. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest these Blue Devils will begin to play better basketball.
Duke has either been particularly bad at defending the 3-point line or, more likely, unlucky in that opposing teams have made an inordinate amount of outside shots in games against Duke. In five ACC games, Duke has allowed the second highest percentage of made 3-pointers. Blue Devils’ conference foes are collectively shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. That simply can’t persist for an entire season. Eighteen conference opponents couldn’t collectively shoot 40 percent against a team of golden retrievers.
The good news is Duke isn’t allowing a lot of 3-point attempts. None of Duke’s ACC opponents have launched more than 22 outside shots yet. The bad news? Duke’s opponents are making up for a lack of 3-point volume with never-ending trips to the free throw line. The Blue Devils rank last in the ACC in free throw rate allowed, constantly fouling when out of position defensively. Go ahead and make your cracks about Coach K always getting the calls – in Duke’s last three games, the Blue Devils have taken 44 foul shots, compared to 77 combined attempts by Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, and Pitt.
If Duke’s 3-point luck changes and they can play effective defense without fouling, these Blue Devils are talented enough in theory to compete with any team in the ACC. Sophomore Matthew Hurt is playing like an all-conference performer, averaging 18.9 points and 8.0 rebounds with 44 percent 3-point shooting. He’s made 13 of 26 attempts from outside the arc in Duke’s last four games. The other Devils have simply not supported him with secondary scoring.
Freshman forward Jalen Johnson is Duke’s most talented player, though he hasn’t been a reliable contributor this year. He missed three games and a large portion of a fourth with a foot injury that could be holding him back. In the games he has played, Johnson has been up and down. He torched Coppin State in his debut for 19 points and 19 rebounds. In Duke’s most recent game, Johnson nearly led a comeback against Pitt en route to a loaded box score – 24 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 blocks. At other times, he’s hurt Duke with turnovers and poor shot selection. In home losses to Illinois and Michigan State, Johnson shot a combined 7 for 21 from the field and 3 for 8 from the free throw line. In that dominating Coppin State game, he also was credited with seven turnovers.
Quite simply, Johnson has played like a freshman. So have other first-year starters DJ Steward and Jeremy Roach. The two guards have each struggled to adapt to the speed of the college game. Steward is shooting just 41 percent on more than 11 field goal attempts per game, with a turnover rate of 19 percent leading to 2.3 turnovers per game. Steward has the same number of assists and turnovers this season. Not to be outdone, Roach is turning the ball over on 22 percent of possessions, or 2.6 times per game. Relying on these two young guards to initiate offense has not worked out in Duke’s favor.
Unlike other freshman-laden teams that have found success in the past, Duke isn’t able to rely on upperclassmen as role players. Jordan Goldwire is the team’s lone senior in the rotation, playing 30 minutes per game. Goldwire is a tenacious and smart defender, nabbing 2.4 steals per game, but he’s a clear net negative on the offensive end of the floor. Junior Joey Baker is, in theory, useful as a stand-still shooter. He’s 2-11 on 3-point attempts this season, making his minutes on the floor a total waste. Lastly, sophomore Wendell Moore has had a trainwreck year to date. Moore is shooting just 33.8 percent from the field on 7.6 attempts per game. He’s made just 6 of 22 attempts from outside the arc, pulling his effective field goal rate down to just 38.2. Only six other power conference players have taken as many field goals as Moore with as low an effective field goal percentage.
Without a core of role players to populate a functioning offense, Roach and Steward have looked lost. Johnson has yo-yo’ed between success and failure as he fought through injury. With him healthy and rounding into form, Duke’s offense should take steps forward. The Blue Devils shooting woes should normalize, especially with Johnson attracting more offensive attention. Duke should start to play better basketball, although that may not necessarily lead to more wins.
The ACC is down this year, relative to a typical season. It’s a second tier conference this season, mingling with the SEC and Big East, well behind the class of the country in the Big Ten and Big XII. Just one ACC team currently sits in the KenPom top 15 (Virginia). There’s really no conference foe that this Duke team can’t beat on a good day.
On the flip side, there’s no “gimmes” for Duke like there might typically be. Fourteen of the ACC’s fifteen teams are ranked 93rd or higher by KenPom. Even against the conference’s two worst teams (Boston College and Wake Forest), Duke had to labor for back-to-back wins in Cameron Indoor stadium earlier this month.
I’m not prepared to put Duke on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament conversation just yet. Based on the Blue Devils lack of non-conference wins, however, it will take at least 10 or 11 conference wins for Coach K to feel safe about an at-large bid. Without any obvious bottom feeders left on the schedule to pick off and a lineup that continues to play disjointed basketball, that’s no given. Even if Duke rebounds and maintains its place in the middle of the pack in the ACC, that’s a far cry from Duke’s year-to-year expectations. Coach K will surely mention the pandemic’s role in his team’s issues this year, but that excuse won’t fly. Every other team had to follow protocols as well. Duke simply didn’t build a roster capable of competing at a high level in 2021.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, RotoBaller, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.