It’s been a rough week and a half for Duke.
After losing 64–62 to Syracuse in Durham on Monday, the 20th-ranked Blue Devils have now lost three straight games: to Clemson, Notre Dame and the Orange.
To put that in context, Duke has not lost three consecutive games since 2007. That’s the same year it had its last back-to-back losses at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the site of its defeats to Notre Dame (on Saturday) and Syracuse (on Monday). But the craziest stat of all? This is the first time since the 1968–69 season that a ranked Duke team dropped three straight games to unranked opponents.
This is uncharted water for Mike Krzyzewski.
It’s true that the Blue Devils lost back-to-back games around this time one year ago, only two months before going on a run that ended with an NCAA championship. But those defeats were that team’s first and second of the season. Monday’s loss to the Orange was already Duke’s fifth—on Jan. 18.
The last time a Blue Devils team had five losses on Jan. 18 was in 1995–96, when Krzyzewski’s team dropped its sixth game of the season on Jan. 13. That Duke team made the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed and lost in the first round.
In short, this is a team dealing with adversity. That much was obvious when Amile Jefferson went down with a foot injury in mid-December (it’s unclear when he will return), but things have gone further downhill since then.
Jefferson’s absence has hurt the Blue Devils in many ways, but maybe no more so than against the Orange. Syracuse junior forward Tyler Roberson punished Duke inside all night, collecting 20 rebounds (12 of which were offensive, tying the Syracuse record), the most ever by an opposing player at Cameron Indoor. Roberson also scored 14 points and added three assists for his third straight double double.
Duke center Marshall Plumlee had his own huge night down low, scoring 19, grabbing 17 rebounds (11 offensive) and blocking four shots. But with four guards playing with Plumlee for almost the entire game, the Blue Devils needed Jefferson badly, as they have on more than one occasion of late. Little-used reserve forward Sean Obi logged only two minutes and freshman forward Chase Jeter didn’t play at all.
Jeter has played only 25 total minutes in Duke’s six ACC games, and while Krzyzewski obviously does not feel the freshman is ready to crack the rotation, he may be running out of options. Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram can’t do it all, and while freshman Luke Kennard has been blossoming recently, the guard was held scoreless on 0-for-9 shooting against the Orange.
What shouldn’t be lost in Duke’s struggles is how important this game was for Syracuse. The Orange have dealt with their own adversity this season, most notably the nine-game suspension served by head coach Jim Boeheim. Boeheim returned last week in a home loss to North Carolina—Syracuse’s seventh of the season—but a 28-point road win over Wake Forest showed reason for optimism. To hit the road again on a short turnaround and beat Duke on its home floor is very impressive, struggling Blue Devils team or not.
“Tough place to win, one of the best wins we’ve ever had,” Boeheim said in his postgame interview. “We were tough the whole game, Tyler Roberson inside—he was unbelievable on the boards … this team just gritted it out.”
It’s going to take more gutsy efforts like the one on Monday for Syracuse to make a serious run at an NCAA bid. It now owns wins over Duke, Connecticut and No. 10 Texas A&M, but losses to Wisconsin, Georgetown and especially St. John’s could haunt the Orange on Selection Sunday. With Boeheim back and with the team currently on a three-game winning streak, however, things are looking up.
The same can’t be said for the Blue Devils, who sit a half-game better than the Orange at 3–3 in conference but are instead trending downward. The ACC isn’t going to get any easier for Duke; its first couple weeks of league play were supposed to be the easy part. Krzyzewski’s team has a road game at No. 15 Miami coming up next week, and February brings a brutal four-game stretch that features home games against No. 17 Louisville and No. 13 Virginia and road games at No. 2 North Carolina and Louisville again. And, of course, Duke will end the regular season at home against the Tar Heels.
It’s most certainly too early to write off Duke—it is a young team dealing with growing pains, it’s mid-January, Jefferson is sidelined and last year’s team taught us that losses at this point aren’t an end-all, be-all. But there are also reasons to wonder how high the ceiling of this Blue Devils team really is. Young teams don’t always put it together and with extremely little depth, a shaky defense and only two top kenpom.com top 50 wins (VCU and Indiana, each before Jefferson’s injury), stormy skies in Durham aren’t going to evaporate overnight.
The good news for Duke is that it still has an incredibly efficient offense (No. 3 on kenpom.com in adjusted efficiency), a Player of the Year candidate in Allen and an elite freshman in Ingram. That’s been enough to carry the Blue Devils at times this year, but it’s going to take more than that in a crowded ACC. Is Coach K’s team up for the task?