- Duke's surprising loss to St. John's makes it clear, the Blue Devil's have some work to do on the defensive end if they want to make a long run in March.
The noise rose in proportion to the diverging math, each additional missed shot by visiting Duke paired with that much more time dripping off the game clock. A frenzied Madison Square Garden crowd, even with an invasive blue-shirted horde among it, grew riled as St. John’s closed in on one of this season’s most surprising upsets, an 81-77 win by the Big East’s last-place team over the No. 4 team in the country. And then, with another miss and now no time for things to reverse, they had it. And now, for the national title contender on that outcome’s wrong side, there is another rising noise of questions, as another clock ticks.
Saturday’s loss does not derail what has been to date, by virtually all reasonable standards, an impressive 19-4 season; a win in five days time at North Carolina could do wonders to turn the page. But a loss such as this for the country’s preseason No. 1 team makes clear the distance between its current state and national-champion form and lays bare some of the concerns surrounding it. And in the post-game press conference Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski appeared understandably frustrated, if largely restrained, and as confused about his team’s performance as many observers.
“I thought [St. John’s] made us look bad, but then we made ourselves look bad,” Krzyzewski said. “We did not play basketball the first 32 minutes worthy of our program. We had blank faces. We didn’t talk. We were like five individuals out there. It was disgusting, really. No matter what we said, nothing worked with our team, until the last eight minutes, and then we had a chance to win.
“You can say why—I do not know why,” he continued. “I do not know why. I can tell you that that’s not the group that I coached all year. They’re a frustrating group to coach today because they didn’t respond to anything until the last eight minutes. And that’s unacceptable. That is unacceptable. You have to respond while it’s going on.”
However elusive the roots of Saturday’s subpar effort may prove, there are issues that extend beyond it and that might undercut the postseason prospects of a team loaded with talent. For one there is the matter of the Blue Devils’ defense, decent in the scheme of things but lacking for a team with title hopes, ranking 69th nationally in efficiency and on Saturday allowing St. John’s to have its best per-possession offensive showing since a Dec. 2 win over Sacred Heart, which currently sits ninth in the 10-team Northeast Conference. The occasional deployment of a 2-3 zone has provided temporary remedy at times this season, but against the Red Storm it did little to stem the tide, and by the time Duke clamped back down in man, it was trading punches while already backed against the ropes.
If that defense is to be overcome then Duke must score at the elite rate of which it has proven capable, but there too the Blue Devils have not quite been right. For stretches Saturday their offense appeared disjointed and flat, a look in stark contrast to the talent involved. Of particular concern of late has been Duke’s backcourt, where the arrival of five-star freshman Trevon Duval was supposed to help reinvigorate senior Grayson Allen’s play by moving him off the ball. Against the Red Storm the pair combined to shoot 6-for-20 with as many turnovers as assists (seven), the kind of production that often falls as short on a Saturday in February as it does in mid-March.
None of which is to dismiss what St. John’s did. To beat a team of Duke’s caliber under any circumstances is impressive; to do it when riding an 11-game losing streak and all its attendant discouragement is a reason to hold one’s head even higher. Shamorie Ponds, the Red Storm’s gunning sophomore guard, scored a forceful 33 points, and forwards Tariq Owens and Bashir Ahmed combined for another 36. Their defense forced 18 turnovers and their will did not wilt when Duke made a late-game surge and it looked like this game might turn out for St. John’s the way they all had been for six weeks now.
But the story coming out of the Garden on Saturday was Duke and where it stands now and where it will some two months from now, when there is no time left on the season it entered on top. The sky is not falling, of course. Gary Trent Jr. looked sharp while scoring a team-high 22 points. Wendell Carter Jr. was active and all over the place on his way to 14 points, 15 rebounds, and four blocks. And flustered as he may have been, Krzyzewski made clear that the team’s unresponsiveness was an aberration. But when asked by a reporter what bright spots could be taken from Saturday, Krzyzewski looked only ahead, to the procession of time and the coaching to be done.
“We just move on,” he said. “Sometimes you have to look horrible to get better… We just need to move on. And grow up.”