Duke’s Luke Kennard (5) and Amile Jefferson (21) celebrate as they exit the court following the No. 21 Blue Devils’ 84-74 victory over Notre Dame on Monday night in South Bend, Ind.
By Adam Rowe
Special to the Times
With two road wins this week (the team’s first and second on their opponent’s home court), Duke is suddenly trending in the right direction.
Looking back to the second half of the Miami game Jan. 21, the Blue Devils have played inspired team basketball, especially on the defensive side. While Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum have carried the scoring load during that stretch (at different times), the entire team seems to have bought in to an increased emphasis on defending and fighting through rough stretches offensively, except for the last five minutes of the NC State game.
Minus that stretch (and unbelievably poor free-throw shooting that night), Duke could be riding a four-game winning streak and be 6-3 and tied for third place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
BAN MAKES IMPACT
Almost a week ago, head coach Mike Krzyzewski hosted his team at his house for a dinner seemingly to get them back to playing together as a group and to shake off the three losses the Blue Devils had just suffered in their previous four games.
It was less than a warm welcome, though, as he ripped into the team, revoking their access to the locker room and Duke gear that players are generally provided. The meeting was first mentioned on TheDevilsDen.com message board and later reported by ESPN.
A players-only meeting organized by captains Amile Jefferson and Jones followed, and the group appeared much more cohesive in the following game this past Saturday at Wake Forest. While the win was narrow, getting a victory on the road against a solid Demon Deacons team is so much larger than just another number in the win column. After feeling as though everything had gone wrong that it possibly could have with this team this year, a shot by Kennard with 6.6 seconds remaining to give Duke a come-from-behind 85-83 win felt almost like an exorcism.
The Blue Devils came out Monday night at Notre Dame playing loose, but inspired, and held nearly a double-digit lead over the Fighting Irish nearly the entire contest before finishing with an 84-74 victory. For almost the whole 40 minutes, Duke looked like the team everyone expected them to be at the start of the year — a juggernaut.
SOMETHING NEW OR RADAR BLIP?
So is this the Duke team we’ll see for the rest of the year? Its obviously too early to tel, but things are certainly trending in the right direction. And just at the right time, as this group is finally (almost) healthy and the NCAA tournament selection committee will begin to judge Duke more strictly based on its body of work moving forward.
The win over Wake Forest kept the Blue Devils in the Top 25, dropping from No. 17 to 21st in Monday’s AP rankings, and the win over Notre Dame will undoubtedly move them up. Victories over Pittsburgh on Saturday and No. 12 North Carolina the following Thursday could push them back into the Top 15 and then some.
Its interesting to note that the team has played this well with freshman center Marques Bolden sitting on the bench for undisclosed reasons and sophomore post Chase Jeter still out due to a herniated disc. So Duke is relying on less players and playing better, but the guys are playing more minutes in each contest. Having two of its best bigs back will allow the starters to get more rest and be conditioned for a long run in to the postseason — if all things come together right.
A LOOK BACK AND AHEAD
Kennard was the hero in the win at Wake Forest, scoring 34 points, which was one less than his career high, including 12 of Duke’s last 15 points. The Blue Devils trailed by 10 points with 4:01 to play but outscored the Demon Deacons 14-2 the rest of the way. Allen added 19 points.
On Monday, Allen led the way with 21 points while freshman Jayson Tatum had 19 points and a career-high 14 rebounds as Duke won consecutive games for the first time since the first week of January.
The Blue Devils have a nice break before hosting Pittsburgh on Saturday at 1 p.m. with the game being televised by CBS.
ANOTHER TOP 50 CLASS
Duke’s 2017 football recruiting class will switch from verbal commitments to signees on Wednesday, National Signing Day. While Notre Dame (Deon Jackson), Ohio State (Damond Johnson) and Rutgers (Axel Nyembwe) came fighting to flip their verbal commitments at the last minute, the relationships developed by the Blue Devils coaching staff during the recruiting process helped solidify those verbals into signings today.
Duke’s class, as of Tuesday, is considered to be the No. 43 class in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite Rankings. It’s the second consecutive year for a Top 50 class (last year was the first under head coach David Cutcliffe at Duke) and represents a big boost in talent for the program in back-to-back years.
Adam Rowe covers Duke basketball, football and recruiting for 247Sports.com. Check out more of his work at duke.247sports.com.