For the second time this season, No. 7 Duke went on the road and got smacked around, this time losing to No. 9 Florida State, 88-72, in Tallahassee.
Xavier Rathan-Mayes led the way with 21 points.
It’s the 12th straight win for the Seminoles, who are one of just two undefeated teams left in the ACC, while Duke falls two games off pace. This is just the second true road game for the Blue Devils, and they played it without their leader on the bench (Coach K) and their leader on the floor (Amile Jefferson).
Does this say more about Florida State or Duke?
Here are four takeaways from the FSU win:
1. It’s time to count Florida State as an ACC title contender: There’s really nothing else to say about this.
The Seminoles have more than proven that they are capable of competing with anyone in the conference. They handled Duke easily on Tuesday just three days after they handled Virginia Tech on this same floor. That came a week after they went into Charlottesville and knocked off Virginia, which is never an easy thing to do. They’re 15-1 on the season, they’ve won 12 straight games and are a three-point loss to Temple away from being one of just two undefeated teams left in the sport.
What makes Florida State so dangerous is that there really isn’t a single strength that you can identify with this team. They are excellent in transition but they have the offensive talent to be able to execute in the half court. They are dangerous when they get out and press, but their bread-and-butter defensively is tough, aggressive man-to-man in the half court. They have a ton of size, length and athleticism along their front line but they are probably at their best when they play small-ball.
Given that every other ACC contender has proven themselves to be vulnerable, why can’t FSU win the conference title?
2. They did all this and their all-american didn’t play well: Jonathan Isaac is the best NBA prospect on Florida State’s roster. On Tuesday night, Rathan-Mayes was the best player on the Florida State roster. But throughout the season, Dwayne Bacon has been their guy. He leads the team in scoring and, after struggling with his efficiency throughout last season, has become a much more effective shooter while cutting down on his turnovers.
None of that was apparent against Duke.
Bacon finished with 13 points, six boards and five assists, but he was 6-for-15 from the floor and turned the ball over seven times. He didn’t play all that well. It happens. What doesn’t happen quite as often is to see a team like the Seminoles beat a team as talented as Duke is on a night where the best player on their roster doesn’t have a good game.
3. So does that mean we should be concerned with Duke?: Yes, because Duke’s defense is a major, major issue right now, particularly their defense on the interior. For as talented as Harry Giles III and Marques Bolden are, they are not yet anywhere close to being good enough to be the defensive anchor on a team that wants to play small-ball with four guards. For starters, their understanding of positional defense and where they are supposed to be on rotations is about what you would expect from a pair of freshmen that entered Tuesday having played a combined 125 minutes this season. Watching them defend ball-screens is as cringe-worthy as watching the most awkward scenes from The Office.
And it wasn’t just their positioning that was an issue. Duke is soft. Florida State on Tuesday was bigger, they were more physical and they were tougher, and that played as big of a role in the outcome of this game as anything. It might sound weird for some people to hear this, but Duke could really, really use a Plumlee – any Plumlee – right now.
Some of that will change when Amile Jefferson gets back from this foot injury, although if Duke’s recent history with defining injuries is any indication, we’re not going to know when he’ll be back until he’s announced in the starting lineup. Jefferson is as good of a positional defender as you’re going to find at the college level. But he’s also about 6-foot-8, meaning that he’s not exactly a shot-blocking presence and he’s not exactly going to push around anyone in the ACC. His presence did nothing to keep the Blue Devils from getting poleaxed by Virginia Tech.
This has been an issue with past Duke teams. In 2014, they couldn’t solve it and got upset by Mercer in the first round of the tournament. In 2015, they went on to win the national title.
4. So don’t totally abandon this team just yet: Duke has played just two games with their ideal starting lineup – Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Amile Jefferson and Harry Giles III – intact. Tuesday night was just the second time that this group has played a true road game, and it came without their leader on the bench (Coach K) and their coach on the floor (Jefferson).
We were all ready to give up on Duke in 2015 when Angel Rodriguez and Manu Leconte looked like Steph Curry and Russelll Westbrook when Miami beat Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that team got it figured out.
This team will probably get it figured out, too.
But as of now, Saturday’s trip to Louisville looks like quite a daunting task.