Duke's slow starts a dangerous trend

No. 1 Duke's win over ACC-rival Clemson wasn't pretty, but they got the job done.

DURHAM, NC — Duke's 68-40 victory over visiting Clemson on Tuesday night was anything but pretty.

But it was another victory for the top-ranked Blue Devils, who haven't put together anything remotely reflecting a complete game in a month.

On Dec. 8, the Devils rolled a solid Temple club, 90-67, in New Jersey. But since then, they have usually started slowly against significantly inferior opponents and have had lengthy stretches of appearing rather ordinary.

In Tuesday's wrestling match with Clemson, Duke didn't even score until after the first official timeout. In fact, the two teams combined to miss their first 16 shot attempts from the field. Yes, Duke scored 43 points after the intermission, but the offense never was all that fluid, and besides, this is more about Duke's first-half issues.

"I think most of it (was) them," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski answered when asked if the struggles were due to Clemson's defense or his team's issues. "They're a good defensive team, and we’re a good defensive team. We did miss some open shots."

He's right. Clemson (8-6, 0-2 ACC) is smart on the defensive end of the floor, as Brad Brownell teams generally are, and the Tigers made Duke work for its points.

But Duke had Ryan Kelly, the 6-foot-10 senior who routinely creates matchup problems for opponents. And he did so again on Tuesday, scoring 12 first-half points on nearly as many different defenders assigned to him. Kelly, however, didn't play in the second half because of a foot injury.

But the rest of the Blue Devils were 5 of 22 from the floor with 13 points in the first half. Starting guards Rasheed Sulaimon and Seth Curry were scoreless, missing all eight of their field goal attempts.

For the game, Duke senior center Mason Plumlee finished with just eight points — giving him only 31 in the Devils' last three contests. Seth Curry also scored just eight.

The slow start has become an alarming trend for Duke (15-0, 2-0 ACC): 29-percent first-half shooting vs. Clemson, tied at the half vs. Davidson, tied at 25-25 vs. Elon, up just 28-26 at one point vs. Cornell, a two-point halftime lead vs. Santa Clara — all in the past month.

The Devils next play North Carolina State on Saturday. Another slow start could spell disaster against the Wolfpack.

"It's hard to come out in the beginning of a game and just blow a team out, even if you're better than them," said Curry, a senior guard. "(Opponents) come out with a lot of energy, and it's hard to come out and go on a 15-0 run. You have to play the game and they'll wear down eventually."

That won't fly against the Wolfpack, and most ACC teams for that matter. NC State has the most talented first six in the ACC by far. It has four future pros, something no other ACC team can say right now. And if fully invested on the defensive end, the Pack can beat anyone, anywhere.

Clemson, on the other hand, lost 20 days ago at Coastal Carolina — by 27 points. The Tigers aren't a good basketball team, yet Duke struggled in the first half in finding its way against them. Clemson usually plays sound-to-excellent defense, as Krzyzewski noted, but it shouldn't have bottled up the Blue Devils as it did.

So is there an identifiable problem?

Krzyzewski doesn't play a deep bench. Other than guard Tyler Thornton and forward Josh Hairston, the other Devils aren't really part of the rotation. Some observers have wondered if the early monster schedule that included wins over Kentucky, Louisville, Minnesota, Ohio State and VCU took too much out of the Devils. At the very least, the recent run of opponents just didn't get Duke's attention like the early bigger-time foes did, and that's been the problem.

The Hall of Fame coach said teams had time to learn what Duke does during the Blue Devils' lengthy period off during the holiday break, and that might be a key factor. Perhaps, but if the trend doesn't soon blow away with the wind, defeat is surely coming.

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