Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski instructs his players from the sidelines during the first half of Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh in Durham. It was the first game back for Krzyzewski, who missed seven games following back surgery Jan. 5.
By Adam Rowe
Special to the Times
With the return of head coach Mike Krzyzewski from his four-week absence following back surgery in early January, Duke finally has a nearly full contingent of hands on deck.
Sophomore Chase Jeter is still slowly recovering from a procedure in late January to fix a herniated disc, and Marques Bolden has missed the majority of the last three games with an undisclosed ailment. But for Duke, that’s pretty much completely healthy and it couldn’t have come at a better time, as the season that was trending downwards has a brand new feel about it.
Duke holds the second-longest winning streak in the Atlantic Coast Conference at three games with a home contest against North Carolina on Thursday night, starting at 8 p.m. on ESPN. The No. 18-ranked Blue Devils, 6-4 in the ACC, are 21⁄2 games behind the No. 8 and first-place Tar Heels. With a win, Duke would be tied for third place.
Regardless of the standings or win streaks, there’s a completely different feel about this team right now. Its confidence is back, and over the last three games has not folded when faced with adversity. That’s a sign of more experienced teams, something that Duke was not once Jayson Tatum and Bolden started to get integrated more and more into the lineup. Following the locker room ban early last week, the group appears to be more cohesive on the floor, sharing the ball much more frequently and finding open looks for their teammates — who are knocking them down for the most part.
But it’s not just improvements on the offensive side of the ball that have shown themselves over Duke’s recent win streak. Perhaps more importantly, the intensity on the defensive side of the ball has increased dramatically. It’s not surprising to see Amile Jefferson, Duke’s most tenacious and versatile defender, streaking across the court and making things difficult for opponents. But the entire team is now moving as one unit, frequently getting into passing lanes and disrupting opponents’ game plans.
3-HEAD MONSTER EMERGING
In each of the last 17 games, one of three players for Duke has led the team in scoring. It’s no surprise that Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Tatum would be those three players, and on any given night either could blow up offensively. With the dedication to small ball putting Tatum at the power forward over the last five games, it’s been either Allen (the last two) or Kennard (the previous two) leading the team in points, but Tatum has now emerged as the team’s leading rebounder in two of those five contests. With Duke having a “Big Three” again, it’s making it harder and harder for teams to find ways to stop their offense.
TOBACCO ROAD RIVALRY
The Duke-UNC rivalry is the best in all of sports, and this year will be yet another with at least one team ranked. That streak goes back 143 games (to 1960), and Duke will extend its streak of games played in the rivalry while ranked to 47 games, going all the way back to 1997.
The game is always one of the most competitive of the season, and this year is a battle between two Top 20 teams and will no doubt result in a memorable contest. While UNC’s season has been more successful so far this year, Duke’s trending upwards at the right time and have the chance to pull off an important upset.
A LOOK BACK AND AHEAD
The Blue Devils welcomed Coach K back with a 72-64 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Allen scored 21 points, with 18 coming after halftime, while Jefferson had 15 and Tatum had 12.
During Krzyzewski’s absence, Duke went 4-3 but the Blue Devils are 14-2 with their hall-of-fame coach on the sideline this season.
After the UNC game Thursday, Duke remains in Cameron for a Saturday afternoon game against Clemson. That game will tip at 1 p.m. and be broadcast by ACC Network.
The Duke-UNC game is always jam-packed with fans and TV crews, but there are also a number of recruits in attendance every year. This season will be no different, with top-ranked point guard Trevon Duval and five-star signees Wendell Carter and Gary Trent expected to be in attendance behind the Blue Devils’ bench.
But there will be football recruits in Cameron Indoor Stadium as well, including the country’s No. 8-ranked running back Jamal Elliott from Durham’s Hillside High School, No. 11 running back Ronnie Walker and No. 10 inside linebacker Jack Sanborn.
SPRING PRACTICE BEGINS
Duke football started spring practice Feb. 2, choosing to get back in action earlier than nearly every other school in the country. With no bowl game last season, this year ever important to getting the Blue Devils back to their winning ways. They’re having to do it without All-ACC linebacker Ben Humphreys (shoulder), offensive tackle Gabe Brandner (leg) and QB Thomas Sirk (achilles), who will miss the contact portion of spring practice due to injuries.
Adam Rowe covers Duke basketball, football and recruiting for 247Sports.com. Check out more of his work at duke.247sports.com.