If No. 16 Duke is going to challenge No. 2 Syracuse for the ACC title this season, it will need to start winning road games. The Blue Devils lost at Notre Dame in their conference opener on January 4 and fell Saturday at Clemson, 72-59. The loss moves Duke to 1-2 in conference play and 12-4 overall.
No one expected this to be an easy game for Duke. The Tigers are one of the best defensive teams in the country; they rank no. 11 in defensive efficiency and no. 1 in three-point and effective field goal percentage defense.Still, Brad Brownell’s team lost to Florida State at home by 15 points just two days ago, and its offense (which ranks no. 186 in points scored per possession) isn’t anywhere near as explosive as Duke’s (no. 2).
But the Tigers were able to prevail thanks to their suffocating defense. The Blue Devils struggled to get clean looks and shot just 34-percent from the field. Freshman Jabari Parker failed to score 20 points for just the fifth time this season. Point guard Quinn Cook shot 3-for-14 for 8 points. Sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon played 12 minutes and didn’t convert one field goal. It was an ugly offensive effort across the board from a team that typically needs to score a lot of points to win games.
The fact that Clemson was able to contest shots, force low-percentage looks and generally make things difficult for Duke was not a huge surprise – even if the way Duke seemed totally fazed and disjointed was. But Clemson wouldn’t have pulled the upset without forward K.J. McDaniels’ stellar effort. The junior shot 8-for-15 for 24 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots. He also made a number of important defensive plays late in the second half.
While Duke suffered another conference loss, the Orange drubbed North Carolina to move to 3-0 in conference play. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh (3-0) and Virginia (2-0) are both undefeated against league competition. The Blue Devils are talented enough to make a push for the top spot in this league, but they’ll need to climb out of the hole they’ve dug themselves into over the first two weeks of conference play. They simply can’t score 59 points on the road in conference and expect to win; their defense (which is ranked no. 76 in points allowed per possession) isn’t good enough to make up the difference.
Duke should be able to pick up at least a few wins before its February 1 trip to Syracuse. The Blue Devils face Virginia and N.C. State at home, followed by road trips to Miami and Pitt sandwiched around a home date with Florida State. After opening the season ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press Poll, three games into conference play the Blue Devils are in danger of falling out of top-25 entirely. This is the first time since 1996 that Duke has opened the season 12-4. There is plenty of time for Duke to set itself straight before the postseason, but the more losses it incurs in league play, the more its NCAA Tournament seeding will suffer.