Duke basketball needs sophomore's best performances to raise ceiling on season

A lot of the success the Duke basketball team will have this season lays on the shoulders of its sophomore forward.

Duke v Notre Dame
Duke v Notre Dame / Justin Casterline/GettyImages
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As the Duke basketball team comes off of its first true road win of the season, a few storylines are starting to emerge.

The first is, that sometimes a father’s scorn (or tweets) can pick up your level of play and execution helping propel Duke to consecutive ACC wins. 

It is fair to say Mark Mitchell is having a strange sophomore campaign as we approach the halfway point of the season. If you were to take a look at just the numbers, it doesn’t appear to show much of a difference from last year to this year. 

In his freshmen season he averaged 9.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 46.9-percent from the field and 35.2-percent from 3-point range.

As a sophomore he's posting 12.8 points and 5.8 rebound per contest on 50.5-percent yet 12.5-percent from downtown.

It’s obvious the statistic that stands out, and before the 67-59 win over Notre Dame, Mitchell had not hit a 3-pointer since November 17 against Bucknell. 

However, when looking beyond the high-level statistics, until the last two games, it’s been quite clear to see that Mitchell has not been himself thus far this year. He has looked confused and noncommittal when making plays offensively and, at times, lost on both ends of the floor.

Confidence can be extremely fleeting at times, particularly when you play at a program like Duke. The spotlight is on you at all times and after a few tough games, it’s easy to see how a player could lose some of the confidence that helped get them to a place like Duke in the first place.  

Many people have been critical of Mitchell’s play throughout the year and have yearned for Jon Scheyer to make a change in the lineup, or at the very least give some of the younger guys some more playing time, but, to his credit, Scheyer has stuck with Mark Mitchell through his early season struggles and it seems to be paying off.

Over the last two games, Mitchell is averaging 22.0 points per game on 68-percent shooting and making both of his 3-pointers. To open the second half, Mitchell scored 14 straight points and single-handedly kept Duke's lead. 

While Duke fans will debate who the team's best or most important player is, the ceiling rises and falls with the play of Mark Mitchell.

The only missing piece in last year's NCAA Tournament was Mitchell and Duke fell short against a tough and physical Tennessee team. If Mitchell can go for that game, it drastically changes its dynamic and would’ve given Duke a much better chance to advance to the Sweet 16. 

If Mark Mitchell can keep this play up for the rest of the season, Duke has the opportunity to do something special in March.

The Blue Devils face a quick turnaround this week as they travel to Pittsburgh for its second consecutive ACC road game, which will be another great test for this team and another opportunity for Mitchell to show that he is fully back and ready to take Duke to the next level.