What the Duke basketball team needs to do to get back on track

Duke basketball (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

A few minor changes in the game-plan and an increased level of execution should enable Duke basketball to get back on a roll following a tough stretch which saw the team drop back-to-back games to Clemson and Louisville.

With No. 8 Duke (16-3, 6-2) in the midst of an oddly timed extended January break, it was only appropriate to dive back into this blog. Whereas my previous posts focused on highlighting the Duke basketball program’s historical greatness, diverting the masses from the myths of the mainstream, or examining how the Blue Devils would respond following the upset to Stephen F. Austin, or a look into their profile as the most balanced team in the country, this week I figured it was time to switch things up.

One of the most important aspects in my eyes as a writer is reaching your “audience”, while doing so in a manner that is grounded in realism, not to be delineated by a narrative. Sometimes that aspect is forgotten, but alas, I thought it would be a great idea to use feedback from all of you on my Twitter page, as a way to decide the topic for this week.

Duke basketball’s current shortcomings: Where do the Blue Devils need to make adjustments moving forward?

To avoid rehashing aspects of my balance and versatility piece, I am going to dive into more of the tactical aspects for where the Blue Devils need to improve. For one, Duke currently has seven players shooting at least 35% from 3pt range this season. Of those seven, four players are shooting 40% or better. That’s quite the turnaround compared to last season when the team shot 30.8% from distance, good for 327th in the country.

Overall, Duke ranks 44th in the country in 3pt percentage this season, yet in regards to overall point distribution, the Blue Devils only score 26.7% of their points via the three-ball — good enough for 274th in the country. Albeit not surprising, they score most of their points within the arc (56.1% of the time), since they have one of the better big men in the country operating on the low block, and a slew of elite finishers as well.

Moral of the story, with all these snipers, the Duke basketball players actually need to start shooting the long ball more often. Not only will it open up the lane for the slashers, but it will also create more room for Vernon Carey Jr. to operate. The Blue Devils also have the horses inside to withstand poor shooting nights, as they rank 11th in the country in offensive rebound percentage.

Now I am not saying Duke should go the Villanova route and launch 35+ threes a game, but when you have four players shooting over 40%, they need to start letting it fly more often. It changes everything defensively, especially when you run into teams like Louisville and Virginia who utilize the pack-line defense which seeks to prevent dribble penetration and protect the paint.

To reiterate once more, Duke should not begin to illogically launch more three-point attempts for the sake of shooting more from distance. The Blue Devils need to shoot them more (maybe 25 a game on average), in my belief, but they need to be rhythm shots. In both the Louisville and Miami games, Duke shot 25 threes, but the percentages from each game had a wide deviation.

The difference, besides the obvious defensive fortitudes of the two teams, was that the Blue Devils moved the ball exceptionally better on offense, allowing their shooters to get up rhythm shots. In the Louisville game, Duke was running a ton of 1-on-1 actions, leading to several difficult shot attempts from distance, which is just about the worst thing you can do versus a pack-line defense.

Moving forward, Matthew Hurt, Cassius Stanley, and Joey Baker need to stop being hesitant on the perimeter. Often times over the last few games, they’ve received the ball in rhythm and spurned the three-point attempt for a more difficult shot, or completely passed the ball out and left Tre Jones out on an island to take his defender 1-on-1 with the shot-clock winding down.

Additionally, Vernon Carey Jr. needs to dish the rock back out once he receives it every now and then, even if it’s just for a reset and another re-entry. This keeps the defense honest, and in situations where he’s making a move to the basket, especially when he’s going to his left with the hook shot, look to the weak side. Often times when he’s doing this, the defense is collapsing in on him and Big Vern can easily kick it for a wide-open three-point attempt.

Another obvious remedy is just simply being stronger with the ball and just making better decisions. They are still an incredibly young team, but the bone-headed turnovers have been the difference-maker in the losses this year. Duke had 16 (Louisville), 15 (Clemson), and 22 (Stephen F. Austin) turnovers in their three losses, good for an average of 17.6 a game. If they cut that average for those three games even by 4 or 5, they’d like be 19-0 right now. Again, a simple controlled solution to a very damaging problem.

On the defensive side of the ball, obviously getting Wendell Moore back will help a ton, as he is easily the Blue Devils most versatile defender. His athleticism enables him to defend positions 1 through 4 on the court. That is not to say he is not valuable on the offensive side of things, but he is most missed right now on defense. He’s on track for a return from his broken right hand within the next two weeks or so. He’s conditioning while out of commission, so his transition back could be seamless and is all dependent on how quickly his hand heals.

Going into the season, it was obvious quick/athletic guards were going to be a problem for Duke to stay in front of. Again, having Moore back will help things astronomically, but for the time being the Blue Devils need to really focus on communication and sticking to the principles of their defensive scheme. If you are going to play a high-pressure man-to-man defense that denies off-ball, then you need to stay attached to your man, and when you don’t or can’t, you need to communicate at a high level so the appropriate defensive switches can be made.

Duke has been getting absolutely torched with back-cuts lately, which is something that is entirely preventable. If it continues, the Blue Devils may need to sprinkle in some zone against athletic teams to keep them off-balance, although I would not recommend doing that over the course of an entire game with this team. Until next time…

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Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more updates, analyses, and opinions regarding the 2019 Duke basketball season.