Duke was overrated, but it’s too early to write them off completely

Grayson Allen gets his shot blocked (AP Photo)
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CHICAGO — Duke entered the 2015-16 season as a preseason top ten team, one that snuck into the top five of most preseason projections.

But if we’re going to call it like it is, if we’re going to really be honest here, than the fact of the matter is this: Duke was overrated entering the season.

They’re going to get better. Teams coached by Mike Krzyzewski have a tendency to do that. But as of today, as of this moment, Duke is not a top five team. Kentucky exposed them in Tuesday night’s 74-63 Champions Classic win, their stifling perimeter defense eliminating any hope that Duke had of functioning offensively in the half court.

“The game was bigger for our guys that they anticipated,” Coach K said. “We’re not going to win when our perimeter plays like that.”

The “like that” that Coach K was referring to was the performance of the two guys that were supposed to star for the Blue Devils on the perimeter, Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram. They combined to shoot 3-for-17 from the floor with eight turnovers on Tuesday night. Allen was 0-for-9 in the first half alone.

To be frank, this is something that we probably should have seen coming. Kentucky is going to make life miserable for opposing back courts all season long, and while Duke is the defending national champion loaded with McDonald’s All-American, it’s critical that we clarify that statement. The Blue Devils only return four rotation players from last year’s team, and the one true point guard on the roster — Derryck Thornton — is a freshman that essentially skipped his senior season in high school in order to enroll at Duke a year early. Someone had to fill the void Tyus Jones left.

That’s a nasty combination, particularly when the season is all of five days old.

But all is not lost for the Blue Devils. Here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s loss:

1. Grayson Allen needs another move: The scouting report on Grayson Allen is so glaringly obvious that the drunk, despondent Duke fans at the United Center last night were able to figure out exactly what he was going to do by the midway point in the first half. He’s going right, he going to try to turn the corner, and he’s going to drive right at the rim. That works against the likes of Siena and Bryant, where his long strides and explosiveness allow him to beat his man and finish over the help defender. But against Kentucky? When he’s being guarded by the likes of Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe and trying to finish over big dudes that are going to be first round picks? We all saw what happens then.

And to be fair, I believe the magnitude of the moment got to Allen. When I spoke with Duke assistant Nate James for this story, one of the things that he reiterated to me was that Allen almost cares too much. He tries too hard and he puts too much pressure on himself, and when things start going poorly, they can snowball. Allen entered this game averaging 27.0 points and 4.0 assists. He was Duke’s best player the first weekend of the season, meaning that the Wildcats game-planned how to stop him. It’s not easy to function being the focal point of a defensive scouting report, and it’s even tougher when everyone in the gym knows what you want to do with ball.

“You have to be able to do a lot of different things and adjust to whatever they’re doing out there,” Allen said after the game. On Tuesday, he didn’t.

2. Execution was the biggest issue: One point that Coach K drove home during his press conference was that the issue with Duke offensively wasn’t their ability to initiate offense, it was their problems executing the sets they were trying to run. In other words, they were able to run their stuff, they just didn’t run it well.

“Some of the turnovers at point guard were after we already initiated the offense and had to make a play and be strong with the ball,” Coach K said. “We have five really good perimeter players and you should just be strong with the ball. When someone is playing that strong you have to come back with that [same] kind of effort.”

3. Part of the issue is Duke has no pressure release: Having a powerful post scorer is good for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is that having a player like Jahlil Okafor means that, when you get him the ball in the post, you’re more-than-likely going to end up getting a high percentage shot or a couple of free throws any time he touches the ball. But that presence also loosens things up for perimeter players. When an offense as a post player that has to be doubled — or, at the very least, respected with his back-to-the-basket — perimeter defenders must be aware of that; they’re the ones that will be making the defensive rotations to protect against weak-side layups and open threes.

Duke doesn’t have anyone like that this season. Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson were awesome on Tuesday night — they combined for 28 points and 25 boards, their 12 offensive rebounds providing Duke with their most consistent source of scoring — but neither of them are really a threat with the ball. In other words, you’re not leaving Matt Jones open from three or giving Allen an opportunity to attack a close-out in order to try and double-team Jefferson on the block, and that leaves Duke’s offense very one-dimensional.

4. Plumlee and Jefferson were really good, though: Plumlee kept Duke in the game early, scoring their first nine points, all of which came via offensive rebounds. He finished with 12 points, 10 boards and six blocks, a performance that was eerily reminiscent of Brian Zoubek, the senior center that came out of nowhere to arguably be the MVP of the 2010 national title team.

And Jefferson? He’s been Duke’s most consistent — and best? — player through three games. Duke’s front court was a red flag entering the season, and while their limitations are noteworthy, those two unequivocally outplayed Kentucky’s bigs on Tuesday night. That’s a very good sign for Duke moving forward.

5. Derryck Thornton actually played pretty well: This, more than anything, might be the most important takeaway from Tuesday night. He finished with seven points, three boards and three assists, and while he turned the ball over four times in 29 minutes, it’s not really shocking considering that he’s a freshman that was being guarded by arguably the best on-ball defender in the college game.

Ingram is going to be better. Allen is going to be better. Those two things are going to happen. But the ceiling for Duke’s season rests in the hands of Thornton. Can he get the Blue Devils into their sets without turning the ball over? Can he create easy offense — dunks for the bigs, open threes for the wings — when their offense stagnates? Can he protect the ball against the likes of Tyler Ulis? He’s never going to be Tyus Jones, and he doesn’t necessarily even need to be a starter, but if he can build on what he provided the Blue Devils on Tuesday night, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about where Duke is headed.