DURHAM, N.C. — Duke basketball isn’t quite accustomed to being what it has been so far this season.
No. 23 in the country, 14-4 overall, 3-2 in the ACC? Pretty good for a lot of teams. Not necessarily for Duke, though, especially for a team many thought could be a national title contender.
And then on a Saturday in front of an appropriately frothy crowd of Cameron Crazies, with a thorough dismantling of NC State (11-7, 1-4 ACC) by a 95-60 final score, Duke finally looked like one.
It wasn’t because of the final score or the quality of opponent. It was because of Duke’s, well, Dukeness.
This looked like some of the great Duke’s teams of the past crushing an outmatched opponent at home, whether it be a non-conference opponent or an ACC team that is a bit young — like the Wolfpack this year — and simply breaking their spirit.
Cameron is an oppressive environment. It takes a lot of mental fortitude. And when Duke has turned things up to 11 on the Intensity Meter, and the crowd is going crazy, and your team can barely in-bound the ball?
NC State managed to keep the game within reach for most of the first half in spite of a rash of turnovers. Duke was up by 15 points at the 5:27 mark, but a quick 6-0 spurt over the next minute or so of game action led Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski to call a timeout.
Krzyzewski put in a fresh five — something he’s done now for two games in a row — and NC State turned it over twice, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and missed a jumper.
"We’d like to play more guys. I think it’s something we’ve learned over the first ACC games that the conference games take even more of a toll on you, and since we’re not this rugged team, it probably takes a bigger toll earlier," Krzyzewski said.
"With us, I think we wear out. We had, what, a 15-point lead, 37-22, it was close to the last TV timeout and we got tired. They scored six points and we had to call a timeout. That’s what I mean, and we’re susceptible to that a lot."
In the second half, though, NC State had the ball once with a deficit smaller than 15 points. Down 54-40 at the 14:23 mark, they only saw that deficit balloon when Duke went on a 30-10 run over the next nine minutes.
Duke had 33 points off of NC State’s 21 turnovers, but the Wolfpack turned it over just four times during that stretch, and Duke had just five points off those turnovers.
No, the damage off turnovers had been done. This was time for Duke to finish an opponent, something it hasn’t been doing a lot of this season.
"It’s been our problem all year. I know for a fact that all four games we lost, we were up at least with ten minutes left. We can’t do that. We’ve got to keep pushing on the gas," Duke point guard Quinn Cook said.
You can see a team give in to Cameron, late in a game there. Whether it’s Duke playing active defense, the crowd, the claustrophobia of the fans and students being right on top of you, not being able to hear yourself think — or a combination of those things — it happens. You can see teammates chirping at each other about missed defensive assignments, slumped shoulders and long faces.
Duke’s players see it, too.
"We like to tell each other that they quit. When you have so many guys coming in and out and at the level that we’re capable of playing at, it can be pretty intimidating," freshman guard Matt Jones, who has started two straight games for the Blue Devils, said. "Ultimately, we just wanted it more today."
It’s that point of a game where a team is either going to continue to fight, or Duke is going to pull away.
In all of Duke’s losses, the Blue Devils have led in the second half. But they haven’t been able to hold the lead, and it’s been a problem even in some of Duke’s wins, because they couldn’t essentially force their opponents to submit.
They did on Saturday.
"That’s what we have to do, and I think that’s why we have lost four games is because we were right there at the point where a team’s going to break up or break down, and then we get tired and they creep back into the game," Duke’s Rodney Hood said. "We did a great job of keeping our foot on the pedal."
Duke is never going to be a great halfcourt defensive team, even giving maximum effort. It just doesn’t have that kind of personnel. But the Blue Devils can, in theory, do what they’ve done the last two games — rotate a lot of players in and out of the game to give maximum effort when they’re in the game.
And against NC State, Duke incorporated a full-court press.
"We did a little bit against Virginia (on Monday) because we actually just started working on it before the Virginia game," Jones said. "And then we took a couple of days after that to really get it going. So today, we did it a little bit more because we were more accustomed to it."
It certainly worked.
NC State has two point guards, one a sophomore who’s struggling with a flu bug in Tyler Lewis (and who played very well at Cameron a year ago), and the starter being freshman Cat Barber, making his first trip to Cameron. Against a Duke team that evidently decided it would start full-court pressing a lot in the days leading up to this game, with little to no tape of said press for NC State to study beforehand.
"They full-court pressed us and there were times when our point guards, both (Barber) and (Lewis), declined the ball and we’ve got somebody else trying to dribble the ball up the floor instead of those guys going and demanding the ball and having presence on the floor," NC State head coach Mark Gottfried said. "So that’s something we’ve got to continue to work on and make sure they get better at."
The full-court press is what will get the most attention, and considering how many turnovers it helped force, that’s understandable.
But when Duke gives the best defensive effort it can, it’s because the Blue Devils are playing as a unit.
There are a lot of players who are contributing to that.
Jones, for example, is probably the best perimeter defender on Duke’s roster. He doesn’t have a lot of gaudy stats, but he likes to think his addition to the lineup is part of what’s changed Duke’s mentality on that end of the floor.
"I like to think I changed it a lot, but at the same time, I just wanted to bring my toughness to the team," Jones said. "I just try to make my role like — it’s not a big role, but at the same time, it’s a big role to us. So I just try to do the best that I can."
Rodney Hood was the one player Krzyzewski said after the game was as close to a consistent player as Duke has. Even if he’s not scoring, he’s playing well in other areas of the game, Krzyzewski said.
And it’s often in unseen ways. Like on defense.
â¨The last two games, Hood has guarded Virginia’s best player (Joe Harris) and now NC State’s best and one of the league’s best in T.J. Warren.
But it’s a challenge that Hood, an excellent scorer in his own right, requested.
"I love doing that. My teammates really respect that about me, just guarding the best player every game. It was (Virginia) when they were going to put somebody else on Joe Harris and I said I wanted him," Hood said.
"It’s just part of me. That’s how I grew up. I just want to always guard the best player. Tonight, I guarded (Warren) and I think I did a really good job on him. He took 19 shots and had 23 (points)."
Hood is chasing players around screens, forcing them into bad shots or just generally trying to contest as soon as the player catches the ball, or just make it impossible for them to catch it in the first place.
"I think in the second half, T.J. got really tired. He started walking up and down the court because I was just contesting him the whole time," Hood said. "I just try to have energy on defense. That’s my job. Other than scoring the ball, defensive-wise, I want to guard the best player."
Then there’s Cook. If he’s unable to guard the ball, Duke doesn’t have a lot of shot-blockers inside, so it’s a problem. But he got in the hip pocket of NC State’s young starting point guard (Barber) and refused to get out.
"Guys were talking to me behind me, so I didn’t feel alone out there. If a guy’s guarding him, if you’re feeling lonely, you know it’s going to be a long night. I didn’t feel alone out there, so I was pressuring with great confidence and I knew my teammates had my back," Cook said.
"I thought Quinn played outstanding defense. He has to have people behind him, too," Krzyzewski said.
"To single out one guy would not be the right thing today defensively. I thought we all played really well."