SOUTH BEND, Ind. — First, Luke Kennard, one of the country’s most valuable players and arguably the one reliable thing for Duke this season, fouled out with three minutes left in a not-yet-decided road game Monday night. Then his team won anyway, pulling away for a double-digit victory on the home floor of a Notre Dame squad that was reeling but still ranked in the top 20. Then Kennard walked over to a Duke staffer filming an interview with freshman Jayson Tatum, gently flicked the cameraman on the ear and scooted away laughing.
Finally, the Blue Devils’ leading scorer stood in the middle of the loud, bustling locker room, and he smiled. “We’ve hit adversity throughout the entire year,” Kennard said, following an 84–74 triumph that was Duke’s second road win in three days. “It’s been a lot of mental stuff this week. We kind of figured it all out. We’re becoming the team we want to be.”
Is it safe to believe in Duke again? The ESPN report about Mike Krzyzewski banning his team from its locker room and from wearing Duke gear after three losses in four games, the comeback from a 10-point deficit at Wake Forest on Saturday, the effort and resolve demonstrated in controlling and then closing out a dangerous Notre Dame team . . . are these the mileposts on the way back, or just scenery as the preseason national title favorites wander around looking for the right path?
Among the Duke players, there were traces of restraint in northwest Indiana on Monday night. “Just building, taking one game at a time,” Tatum said, after his resounding 19-point, 14-rebound outing. But there were plenty of encouraging signs.
Sixteen days earlier, in a nine-point loss at Louisville, it seemed as though the cavalry was not coming for Duke. Tatum appeared then to be the only productive freshman, and even he had been inconsistent. Much of the preseason super-team talk had revolved around those first-year studs creating astounding depth of talent, and that just hadn’t happened. Monday was no different: Duke mustered all of six bench points, none in the first 37:20 of the game. Help isn’t on the way. The guys the Blue Devils have won with so far are going to be the guys they win with the rest of the way.
At Notre Dame, though, those guys looked like enough. Duke shot 51.9% from the floor and averaged 1.156 points per possession, holding a lead for more than 33 minutes in a building primed to detonate at the first sign of the visitors’ demise. The Fighting Irish entered the game as the nation’s 17th-most efficient offense. Duke limited that offense to .806 points per possession in the first half and held the hosts without a field goal for the last 8:40 before intermission. It didn’t last (Notre Dame shot 56.7% in the second half), but it almost didn’t have to. The Blue Devils’ had recognized what they had to do to take control of this road game: Pressure the Irish’s shooters at every spot on the floor, force them into late-clock offense, and then clean up on the defensive glass. Notre Dame had four second-chance points all night. “After a big comeback game like we just had [at Wake Forest], I thought we showed maturity coming out and playing hard from the start,” said junior guard Grayson Allen, who finished with a game-high 21 points. “That was something that was a key for us coming in—we couldn’t relax after getting a big win like we did. We came out firing and really focused on our defense.”
The start was good. The end was perhaps most significant. Duke lost senior forward Amile Jefferson to a fifth foul at the 4:23 mark, up just six. Kennard followed to the bench in less than a minute and a half. A team with virtually no bench production to that point then enhanced its advantage, holding Notre Dame without a field goal from the time Jefferson hit the pine to the 1:14 mark. By that point, the dicey six-point edge had swelled to a very comfortable 12. Freshmen Harry Giles and Frank Jackson, who had done little in the game, combined for the Blue Devils’ six bench points in that span.
Even without two linchpin players, Duke did not fold. “I think we’re growing up,” Blue Devils interim coach Jeff Capel said. “I think all the things we’ve been through have helped us become tougher.” This might be dismissed easily if it wasn’t echoed in almost the exact same words by the coach on the other sideline (“They’re a group that’s coming together a little bit,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said) and if the problem was a dearth of physical ability as opposed to mental makeup. But Duke still rolls out some of the most talented players in the country each night. If those talents perform with composure and backbone, that can be enough.
“We’ve battled through so much,” Kennard said. “Injuries, just different things . . . I don’t know. We’ve battled through a lot. To get these two wins, it’s really, really big for us.”
No one sheds a tear for poor Duke. There are still no indications of a nine- or 10-deep wrecking crew emerging in February and March. But over the three-day, two-game stretch, the guys Duke has, the guys Duke needs, demonstrated some determination. That’s not a solution as much as a start.
About an hour before the game, Kennard and Allen stood just inside the half-court stripe and heaved jumpers toward the basket, smiling and laughing as they did. In a corner of the floor, Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer shook his head. This was not a pair of stars working on shots they might get in the flow of the offense that evening. But Scheyer also guessed it meant his players were loose. And anyway, just a couple days earlier, after the Wake Forest comeback, senior Matt Jones told reporters that the previous week had been “hell.” A little tomfoolery, Scheyer would take.
Is Duke truly the team it wants to be? For the moment, it is no longer spiraling in the wrong direction. “Hopefully we’re through it,” Capel said. “You just have to keep pushing. One of the things in our program is no excuses—you have to figure out a way. We were able to figure out a way early in the season, when we had three guys out. We get to conference play and it becomes more difficult. We’re disjointed. Again, going through some hard things, some things we’ve done as a program, team-building in January, which is normally what you do in November and December. Hopefully we’re through the storm and we can start seeing daylight.”