Four days ago, when N.C. State paid a visit to South Bend to take on a Notre Dame team that was playing without Bonzie Colson, the Wolfpack lost by 30 and scored a measly 58 points.
On Saturday, when N.C. State squared off with the No. 2 team in the country in Duke, Kevin Keatts’ club put 96 points on the scoreboard, beating the Blue Devils 96-85.
And as impressive as the win was for Keatts – he also owns a victory against No. 14 Arizona – the story of this game was that this was yet another disappointing defensive outing from the Blue Devils. Duke gave up 96 points on 75 possessions one week after allowing 93 points on 81 possessions against Florida State in Cameron. This all comes on the heels of allowing Boston College to drop 89 points in 74 possessions on them in their ACC opener.
The Blue Devils are now 1-2 in ACC play this season. They have allowed at least 89 points in all three of those games, two of which came against teams unlikely to reach the NCAA tournament and none of which came against programs with a real chance of competing for the ACC regular season title. They are dead last in defensive efficiency in league play and rank 105th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
As of today, Duke cannot be considered a national title contender, not unless they find a way to drastically improve the way that they defend.
And I’m just not sold on the idea that they are going to be able to.
This is not the first time that I have voiced concerns about Duke’s ability to defend. I wrote an entire column earlier this year arguing with myself over whether or not Duke was actually good. I think they are; frankly, they have the most talented starting five in college basketball. But the mitigating circumstance at the time of that column was that Duke was in the midst of a brutal early-season, one that saw a roster full of freshmen jettisoning all over the country and playing nine games in 19 days before the start of the finals period.
Then things slowed down.
Saturday was just the third game that Duke has played in the last four weeks, since their Dec. 9th loss at Boston College. They’ve had 25 days without games that they could have devoted to learning how to stop a pick-and-roll or how to rotate defensively or when to switch. It hasn’t helped.
If Duke didn’t learn in the six weeks of preseason that they had, if they didn’t learn in the four weeks that they had in between their first league game and Saturday’s trip to Raleigh, when will they learn?
We’ve been here before.
In 2015, the year that Duke won the national title, we had similar questions to the ones that we are asking today. I remember it like it was yesterday: Angel Rodriguez and Manu Lecomte lit up Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, exposing Jahlil Okafor’s inabilities on the defensive end of the floor to the world in a nationally-televised game. Those defensive issues didn’t really get solved at any point during the regular season or the conference tournament, and heading into the NCAA tournament, Duke was ranked outside the top 60 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.
And then it all changed.
Duke played defense at a level that, extrapolated over an entire season, would have been on par with the best defenses we’ve ever seen in college basketball, finished the year ranked 12th in defensive efficiency on KenPom and earned Coach K his fifth national title.
That could happen this year. Duke certainly has the athleticism up and down their roster to make that a reality.
But barring some kind of drastic turn around on that end of the floor, Duke cannot be considered a contender to win the national title.