Duke’s struggles since Ryan Kelly went down to injury are well documented. Everyone has basically admitted that this isn’t the same team without its 6-foot-11 stretch four and they clearly aren’t.
Growing pains were and are to an extent, still to be expected but just when you think the team might be turning the corner without Kelly they show a painful reminder that they aren’t quite a well-oiled machine without their senior captain. The team’s performance in the latest games against Wake Forest is a prime example.
After pummeling Maryland on Saturday, Duke struggled throughout the game on both ends of the court. While there are various excuses for why that happened, the fact remains that the Blue Devils remain a terribly inconsistent team and with the season half-way over they are running out of time to start putting the pieces together.
Wake Forest is an improving team and no win on the road in the ACC is a given, but there really is no excuse for Duke having played so poorly against the Demon Deacons and the game should not have been nearly as close as it was.
Mason Plumlee offensively looked like the National Player of the Year scoring a career high 32 points but foul trouble essentially turned him into a huge defensive liability that allowed the Deacons to get uncontested layup after uncontested layup. And Plumlee wasn’t the only Blue Devils who looked like they took the night off on the defensive end.
If last year taught Duke fans anything it is the fact that one person does not make a team and if you allow the staple of your program, namely defense, to fall to the wayside then it can all go to hell in a hand basket.
Duke’s defensive intensity was compromised a bit by the ticky-tack foul calls of the game but the Blue Devils still allowed one of the more inept offensive teams in the ACC to score 40 points and shoot 54 percent in the first half. It only got moderately better in the second half.
But it isn’t just the fact that Duke narrowly beat the Deacons, who while an improving team, aren’t what they once were. Duke hasn’t been playing particularly well since before Ryan Kelly went down to injury and the flaws that were beginning to show then are only magnified.
In the losses to NC State and Miami, the team shot poorly from beyond the three point line. Mason Plumlee has had to deal with more double teams as Duke doesn’t have another post player with the kind of offensive game most opposing teams will respect enough to pull the extra man from Plumlee.
As a result Plumlee has had a hard time against teams with a more skilled and deep post presence. Rasheed Sulaimon who was slumping has been up and down. He played better in the second half against Georgia Tech after a nonexistent performance in the games prior to that. Then against Miami he became a wallflower again.
He broke out in a big way against Maryland, but that was at home, his road woes, especially shooting continued against Wake Forest.
Quinn Cook has been consistent running the offense but his own offensive game has been compromised by his over-reliance on shooting three pointers instead of attacking the basket.
Seth Curry has maintained his seemingly unsustainable effort despite injury and despite, like most of his teammates not showing up at all against Miami. Amile Jefferson has grown up but still has a long ways to go toward becoming the consistent player Duke really needs right now to help Plumlee in the post.
Duke’s bench has also not been much help. They can’t count on any offensive production from Josh Hairston or Tyler Thornton. They are tough, hard nosed players and good kids but they aren’t giving Duke much in the stats column. The one player on the bench, Alex Murphy, that seems like he could help has been the text book definition of inconsistent. Some of that is his fault some of it not.
Murphy’s game would appear to be just what Duke needs in Kelly’s absence but he never plays. Murphy played well against Miami, perhaps better than anyone else on the Blue Devil’s entire team, but then he logged 19 seconds against Maryland. It was said that injury played a part in the decision not to play him but he showed no signs of that when he played 6 minutes in the first half against Wake, only not to play at all in the second half.
In those 6 minutes, Murphy played well and played in Kelly’s spot at the power forward. He didn’t score or even take a shot but he appeared to hustle and play better than most on the defensive end. Why he didn’t play at all in the second half remains a mystery as does why he went from projected starter to little used reserve.
What started out as a season filled with a lot of promise has disintegrated into a season filled with doubts and a ‘you never know what you are going to get experience’ every single game.
Duke’s lack of consistency on both ends of the floor has and will continue to plague them. Even if Kelly returns that doesn’t mean Duke will transform magically into a consistent team. There is still a lot of season left to be played but where other teams are getting better the Blue Devils don’t look like one of them right now.
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