Just a few weeks into season, Duke basketball is at a crossroads

Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski makes a point to his squad from the bench. (Photo by Bob Leverone/Getty Images)
Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski makes a point to his squad from the bench. (Photo by Bob Leverone/Getty Images) /

Seeing where it is and where it needs to be, the Duke basketball players are at a crossroads heading into their first test on an opponent’s court.

Come Tuesday evening, the Duke basketball team will be exactly one week removed from one of the worst losses in program history — one that ended a historic 150-game non-conference home win streak. There’s been some chatter about the loss being the biggest upset in history. Unless you’re new to the college basketball scene, though, you know there have been far worse upsets in the history of the sport…

  • Chaminade over Ralph Sampson and Virginia in 1982
  • UMBC over Virginia in 2018
  • Duke over UNLV in 1991
  • Alaska Anchorage over Michigan in 1988
  • Notre Dame over UCLA in 1974
  • George Mason defeating Connecticut in 2006

…just to name a few. To be clear, I am not justifying the loss by any means, just simply putting it into perspective. Duke was outplayed for much of the game and had zero right to win that game based on effort alone. With that said, let’s get started…

Where Duke sits today

While a few of the upsets listed above ended seasons for the favorites, Duke’s loss to Stephen F. Austin obviously did not.  Moreover, the Blue Devils followed up the loss with a gritty performance on Friday against Winthrop. In a game where you could visibly see how tight the players were playing, they still ended up coming out with a win. At the end of the day, that’s really all you want in such a game.

Nonetheless, No. 10 Duke sits at an early crossroads in the season, one that usually does not occur until the seemingly yearly struggles begin in January.

On tap this week, the Blue Devils face off against two tough foes on the road in No. 11 Michigan State (Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. on ESPN) and Virginia Tech (Friday at 7 p.m. on ACCN). They’ll be without the freshman athletic freak Cassius Stanley, who’s believed to be out with a Grade 1 hamstring strain, in both of those match-ups. Additionally, recent reports of a Coach K health scare have put an early-season damper on things for Duke fans.

ALSO READ: Critics roast Coach K for so-called ‘excuse’

From my perspective, the season can go one of two ways: the Blue Devils can silence the doubters and the haters, and win two tough games, and be right back in control of their own destiny, or they can continue to play tight and lose two on the road, and walk into the holiday season barely worth a top 20 ranking.

The positive? This Duke basketball team seems more inclined to play stiffer competition, at least so far. The energy level from players during match-ups in “The Garden” was noticeably higher against the likes of Georgetown and Kansas, compared to at home versus Stephen F. Austin and Winthrop. While playing down to the competition would raise concern come March, this team still has a lot of growing to do between now and then.

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What the advanced analytic metrics say about Duke

From a statistical standpoint in the world of advanced analytics, the sky might not be falling as some Duke fans have perceived. Ken Massey’s composite college basketball rankings have the Blue Devils still sitting pretty at No. 3 overall. For those that don’t know, the Massey Composite rankings are a “composite” of all the advanced analytic metrics into one data set. I have listed Duke’s ranking in some of the more popular ones below:

Whether the stats are more score-based (reactive) or predictive-based, Duke’s average ranking across sixteen metrics is 6.19, with the third-lowest standard deviation of 5. Now, I am sure some of you reading this are wondering, “Okay, cool, but what does all that mean?”

To be quite frank, it just means that despite the rocky week, the numbers show that the Blue Devils are still one of the top teams in the country, no matter what the talking heads say. Don’t freak out. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Maybe the players will stumble a few more times, maybe they won’t. Regardless, it is only early December. This team is learning what it takes to win games at the collegiate level, and sometimes the best ways to learn are through failure. It is always better to take the bumps and bruises now rather than later on in March.

Where Duke needs to be going forward

Taking advanced metrics as scripture is not the best line of advice when analyzing teams, but using it in combination with game film can be telling in both recognizing the past and predicting the future. A week ago, Duke was the top-rated team on KenPom. Now, the Blue Devils are fifth (AdjO:  No. 21; AdjD: No. 4), with their defense being the main culprit for the drop.

They have surrendered 0.90, 1.01, and 0.93 points per possession in their last three games, allowing each of those opponents to top 70 points. That was good enough to see their adjusted defensive efficiency drop nearly three whole points (that’s a lot in the advanced analytics world). While many assume the offense is where the heart of Duke’s problems lie, in my eyes, it begins with their defense, which then attributes to their inefficiency on offense.

Peak “Duke basketball” is when the team is active on the defensive end forcing steals or non-steal turnovers. Doing so creates opportunities on the offensive end to get out and run, which few teams can match defensively, resulting in more efficient basketball. When teams force Duke into a halfcourt game and take care of the ball, like SFA did all game, and Winthrop did half of the game, it makes things exponentially more difficult for the Blue Devils.

If there’s anything on the offensive end that they need to focus on, it is ball security. They are turning over the ball at an exceedingly high clip, ranking No. 186 in the country in turnover percentage, and No. 247 in the country in steal percentage. The vast majority of Duke’s turnovers aren’t of the non-steal variety, meaning they simply need to be stronger and smarter with the ball.

That starts at the top; quite simply, sophomore point guard Tre Jones needs to be better leading the offense. By leading, I mean making better decisions with the ball and taking smarter shots. An ill-advised shot is just as bad as a live-ball turnover. None of this is something he doesn’t already know, I’m sure.

ALSO READ: The 100 greatest Blue Devils under Coach K

Moving forward, it is imperative for this Duke team to begin to protect the ball better and to understand that defense travels, even when your offense does not. Defense — and rebounding, for that matter — are largely all about effort. If the young guys can begin to appreciate that concept, they will win a lot of games this year, and even win a few games they probably shouldn’t when the shots aren’t falling.

It is early, but it’s time to get back to the roots of Duke basketball. If these Blue Devils do that, they’ll walk away from this week with two impressive, hard-earned wins.

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