DURHAM, N.C. — Perhaps the most interesting thing that happened in No. 8 Duke’s 85-66 win over Gardner-Webb, after a nearly two-week break for exams, was that some North Carolina fans showed up with Free P.J. signs (as in Hairston, UNC’s best player from last season, who is being held out awaiting an NCAA ruling).
Just part of life on Tobacco Road, where arguably the best rivalry in sports features two schools that are eight miles apart.
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Even freshman Jabari Parker (team-high 21) putting up another 20-point effort has become almost routine.
But there were certainly parts of Monday’s game that showed Duke still has some issues to work out before it makes the leap from really, really good team to great team.
“For us to be great, we’ve got to be sharp,” senior captain Tyler Thornton said. “We’ve got to be precise on both ends of the floor. There were spurts where we weren’t sharp on the defensive end and there were spurts when we weren’t sharp on the offensive end. Put it together for a 40-minute game and that’s when we’ll know we’ve done it. … That’s why our program has been what it is — excellence for 40 minutes. Once we get there, then we’ll see a little bit more.”
Duke’s older players especially aren’t used to having two losses at this point in the year. Last season, Duke didn’t lose at all until Jan. 12, and it didn’t have two losses until Jan. 23.
In 2012, Duke didn’t pick up loss No. 2 until Jan. 4.
The desire not to take any more unnecessary losses has pushed the Blue Devils to get even better.
“We’re hungry. Two losses in the beginning of the year hurt,” Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. “Guys like myself, Josh (Hairston), (Thornton), we’re used to getting our first loss in January, February. We have two right now. So guys are staying hungry and we just want to keep getting better every day.”
1. The Blue Devils’ usually stout defense is still a work in progress
Duke played very well defensively against Michigan, but the Blue Devils have had issues on that end of the court all season. Maybe it was the exam break, maybe it was rust — but in the first half, Duke allowed Gardner-Webb to shoot 62.5 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three.
Fortunately for Duke, it crashed the offensive boards and didn’t turn it over much, and still led 53-39 at the break.
Duke’s greatest defensive concern on this night: Not consistently communicating on the court.
Thornton said those issues are the root of Duke’s defensive struggles.
“Whenever a defense break down, it’s usually because of communication, one guy not talking, two guys not talking and it kind of breaks down because the other three guys don’t really know somebody’s got their back,” Thornton said.
But he also said it comes more naturally to some of the older players. Some of the young players are still reminding themselves to talk, and by the time they remember, it’s too late on that particular possession.
“Especially for the older guys, it’s easier because we’ve been through the process. A lot of guys coming in through high school, you don’t have to talk in high school,” Thornton said. “So, that’s a major adjustment coming from high school to college. To be a great team and to have a great defense, those are the things we’ve got to do.”
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t tolerate defensive lapses very often, but he was pleased with the way his team defended in the second half (holding Gardner-Webb to 46.2 percent shooting, but 5 of 15 from beyond the arc).
And he attributed the early lack of defensive chatter to the exam layoff. But it’s worth keeping an eye on going forward; Duke’s going to continue to struggle stopping the dribble if it doesn’t communicate better on that end.
“Sometimes when you finish exams, you don’t want to talk to anybody. So I thought our talk was good most of the time, lacking sometimes, but overall okay,” Krzyzewski said.
2. Duke’s rather difficult to defend when making the quick transition to offense
The Blue Devils put up 53 first-half points on nearly 59 percent shooting, getting out in transition effectively and getting good looks early in the shot clock. Cook had all nine of his assists in the first half, and it looked like the Bulldogs were going to get run out of the building.
But just like the Duke defense, it was a tale of two halves.
Duke had seven fast-break points in the first half, though, and none in the second, collecting 32 second-half points and shooting 36.4 percent in the second half.
“(Gardner-Webb) made an adjustment at halftime. They stopped our transition,” Cook said, referring to the Bulldogs deciding to leave their point guard or shooting guard back to slow the Duke break.
“We weren’t sharp in the halfcourt. We were so used to getting up and down in transition in the first half, I think we kind of wanted to get back to that and they were stopping us.”
The first half, though, was proof enough of what this offense — even a bit rusty after a long break — is capable of doing.
Duke has seen a lot of zone defense, and it will likely encounter more of it in the weeks ahead. But opposing teams that use such a strategy always sacrifice something. Usually, that’s an opportunity to get offensive rebounds.
But if Duke’s opponents aren’t missing a ton of shots, it won’t matter. The Blue Devils have to learn to score more effectively in the halfcourt, and stretches of this game showed that, too.
“We got stagnant. That’s pretty much it,” Duke’s Rodney Hood said of the Blue Devils’ dry spell. “We got stagnant, stopped sharing the ball. But for the most part, for most of the game I think we played well offensively. We could score anytime we really wanted to. We missed some shots we normally make.”
3. What’s going on with Rasheed Sulaimon?
It’s the question du jour amongst college basketball fans, and particularly Duke fans.
Sulaimon, a sophomore who was on the Naismith Award preseason watch list, had seen at least 13 minutes in every Duke game leading up to the clash with Michigan (healthy DNP).
When Krzyzewski was asked about it on Nov. 29, he said Sulaimon needed to play better to see more time. It was that simple.
Well, nearly two weeks later against Gardner-Webb, Sulaimon saw five total minutes and missed both his shot attempts. He also committed one foul.
More importantly than his stat line, though, he just looked tentative and unsure.
But his teammates are on his side, and they feel this is just a bump in the road for the talented guard.
“Rasheed’s been doing so much better, especially over this two-week break. We’ve just been in the gym working out,” Hood said. “Everybody knows he can play, and he knows he can play. It’s just a matter of him doing it consistently on an everyday basis.
“He’s one of the best players on our team, and we need him to come on and be who he is. That’s only going to help us.”
Sulaimon’s biggest issue, of course, is that there are alternatives. He had to play more as a freshman. But now, freshman Matt Jones (a good defender) and graduate student Andre Dawkins — who took a year off from basketball last year and is one of the best shooters in the country — are starting to play very well.
Particularly Dawkins, who had 18 points off the bench against Gardner-Webb and looks more confident with each game.
Dawkins was in Sulaimon’s position not long ago, seeing a few minutes a game — if that -— earlier in the season, trying to completely heal from a back injury.
“Andre’s been off for a year. Three weeks ago at this time, he wouldn’t have played like he did (Monday). And so things change, they just change, and you hang in there with everybody,” Krzyzewski said. “Hopefully no one gets hurt and you have enough guys playing well to have a chance to win. That part of it is not complicated.”
And Krzyzewski reiterated playfully to the media — in case it was “still in football mode or whatever” — there are only 200 minutes in a game. Cook, Parker and Hood are going to see close to 40 per night, or certainly at least 100 amongst them.
“Whenever someone says, ‘Well, someone’s not playing,’ well, who would they play for? Or are you going to give me magically 25 more minutes? But I don’t want that, because that means we go into overtime. That’s just the way it is,” Krzyzewski said.
Matt Jones is playing as well as anyone on the Duke roster, but even he didn’t see a ton of minutes against Gardner-Webb, thanks to Dawkins’ strong play.
Competition is stiff between those three for playing time, and Krzyzewski is always going to limit his rotation to the players who are playing the best at that particular time, period.
But like Hood, Krzyzewski and the rest of the coaches just want Sulaimon to get back to the form he had last year. It’s almost all mental, seemingly, for the sophomore. He’s in a slump.
“You’re just on his side. He’s not playing well. You can see it,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s not about attitude. He’s got a good attitude. He’s a good team player. It’s just not going well for him.
“It’s kind of like in baseball — one of your really good hitters is striking out all the time, can’t get a hit. You’ve just got to keep positive with him, try to help.”