But Duke has stumbled in unexpected places such as Boston College and St. John’s. At times, the Blue Devils’ effort and defense have been lacking enough to draw a harsh public rebuke from coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Duke (20-5, 8-4 ACC) remains unsettled as it prepares for the Hokies (18-7, 7-5).
Forward Marvin Bagley III, the ACC’s leading scorer and rebounder, missed Sunday’s victory at Georgia Tech with a mild knee sprain, and his status for Wednesday is unknown. Krzyzewski removed point guard Trevon Duval from the starting lineup for the first time Sunday, shifting wing Grayson Allen to the point and starting Alex O’Connell in Duval’s stead.
Bagley, Duval, O’Connell and two other starters, forward Wendell Carter Jr., and wing Gary Trent Jr., are freshmen. That’s five rookies and two sophomores, Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier, in an eight-man rotation.
The expectation that the 6-foot-11 Bagley and 6-10 Carter, and perhaps Trent and Duval, will declare for the NBA after one college season aside, that’s a recipe for volatility. None of the freshmen is reliable defensively, and Duval committed 15 turnovers in the four games before Sunday, three of which Duke lost.
Meanwhile, the team’s lone senior, Allen, has shot poorly in five of the last six games. He’s 22-of-60 during that stretch, 36.7 percent, 11-for-36 beyond the 3-point arc, 30.6 percent.
But the 70-year-old Krzyzewski signed up for this by recruiting players he knew were almost certain short-timers. Such prospects often are flawed and stubborn, their focus straying from team to self, their inevitable departures creating annual roster overhaul.
His 2015 squad, led by one-and-dones Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones, won the program’s fifth national championship, with significant assistance from upperclassmen Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson. But his freshman-oriented teams in 2012, ’14 and ’17 underperformed in postseason.
In a sport judged, fairly or not, by Final Fours and banners, that’s a bargain most programs would strike. But it doesn’t make the hiccups any more palatable when they occur.
Krzyzewski’s opening comments after a Feb. 3 loss to St. John’s at Madison Square Garden were widely reported yet jarring enough to merit mention here.
“I thought they made us look bad, but we made ourselves look bad,” he said. “We didn’t play — we did not play basketball the first 32 minutes worthy of our program. And we had blank faces. We didn’t talk. We were like five individuals out there, and it was disgusting really, and no matter what we said, nothing worked with our team, until the last eight minutes. Then we had a chance to win.
“You can say, ‘Why?’ I don’t know why. I do not know why. I can tell you that’s not the group I’ve coached all year, and they were a very frustrating group to coach today, because they didn’t respond to anything until the last eight minutes, and that’s unacceptable. That’s unacceptable. You have to respond while it’s going on, at halftime, at a timeout — you’ve got to respond, and if you don’t, you are into your own stuff for whatever reason that is. Whether you’re not ready, you’re sick, you’re whatever, you have to give it up. We didn’t give it up, and the team that was deserving of winning won, and it made the loss, because we came back, all the more frustrating.”
Krzyzewski didn’t sugarcoat earlier defensive shortcomings against Boston College and North Carolina State, and after losing to the Wolfpack 96-85, he said he was disappointed in himself, his staff and team for not developing consistency.
Reflecting his mentor, Bob Knight, Krzyzewski forged the Duke program on defense, and his last three NCAA champions were top-shelf defensively. Moreover, in the first 10 seasons of Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency metric, 2002-11, the Devils never finished below 28th and seven times were among the top 10.
They are 79th this season and finished below 75th in 2012, ’14 and ’16.
Offense isn’t and hasn’t been an issue. Duke leads the ACC in scoring at 88.8 points per game — Virginia Tech is second at 83.7 — and will finish among the top 10 in offensive efficiency for the 10th consecutive year.
Bagley and Carter can dominate in the low post and are also comfortable on the perimeter. Trent is shooting 45.4 percent from beyond the arc, O’Connell 52.6 percent, the latter a limited sample size (20-of-38). And Duval leads the ACC in assists at 5.7 per game.
“Coach K’s teams have always been talented and good,” Wake Forest coach Danny Manning said after losing to Duke a second time this season, “but I think Bagley and Carter give them a different dimension than what they’ve had in the past.”
Indeed, one pro-caliber post player is a luxury for most college teams. Two are beyond extravagant.
With four more top-10 recruits set to arrive next season, Duke will be callow again, but far different stylistically. Ranging in size from 6-7 to 6-2, forwards R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson, and guards Cam Reddish and Tre Jones will present a smaller look.
The current Blue Devils are No. 12 in the Associated Press media poll, the lowest they’ve been all season. They could hang another banner or exit the NCAA tournament early.
Neither would surprise.
Teel can be reached by phone at 757-247-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.