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Without Bagley, Duke using ‘mini makeover’ to move up in ACC standings

February 19, 2018 GMT

The weekend brought a clean sweep for Triangle teams – on the road!

NC State won at Wake Forest for the first time since 2012. North Carolina beat Louisville in Louisville for the first time ever. Yet the most consequential win prior to President’s Day belonged to Duke. The Blue Devils triumphed 66-57 at Clemson, a place where neither of the Devils’ Triangle rivals could win.

Duke’s victory looks even larger in the context of the most recent three games. Marvin Bagley III, of course, suffered a sprained knee in the Feb. 8 loss at North Carolina. He has not played since.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has replaced Bagley with another big man, using either Marques Bolden or Javin DeLaurier at Bagley’s position, rather than going to a smaller lineup as UNC and NC State have both done successfully.

Krzyzewski has made other changes since the UNC game:

Giving the ball to Allen has received more attention, particularly since Krzyzewski made the decision to bring freshman Trevon Duval off the bench Feb. 11 against Georgia Tech rather than start him at shooting guard.

Duval played well in a reserve role that day and has since returned to the starting lineup. He’ll always be a point guard, but right now Grayson Allen is running the show, and Duval is more or less Allen’s wingman.

Duke is 3-0 since Krzyzewski’s mini makeover, with two of those victories coming away from home. Sunday’s win at Clemson was the most difficult, by far.

Clemson, like Duke, played short-handed Sunday. The Tigers lost star Donte Grantham for the season several weeks ago. Against Duke, Brad Brownell’s team also played without primary ball handler Shelton Mitchell, who is still in concussion protocol.

There was more Clemson was missing. The Tigers played in Littlejohn Coliseum without their 3-point shooting stroke, which has been such a big part of this most successful ACC campaign.

The Tigers, though, play the best man to man defense this side of Charlottesville. We saw that again Sunday. Clemson took away Gary Trent Jr.’s space. The Tigers muscled Wendell Carter Jr. with their own big guy, Elijah Thomas, who happens to be the ACC’s leading shot blocker in conference games. In short, Clemson made Duke grind for baskets.

The Tigers would have dominated the first half but for Grayson Allen, who has thrived in Duke’s last three games. Is it because there is more space for him to drive with Bagley out? Is it because he has the ball in his hands more? Whatever the answer, Allen poured in 17 first-half points. His teammates scored 18.

Duke used its defense to great advantage in the first half. Trailing 25-21, the Blue Devils suddenly decided to press full court. Duke forced three quick turnovers and ripped off seven straight points, all scored by Allen. And so Duke led at halftime 35-34, even though Carter had not scored a single field goal.

Just before the second half began, assistant coach Jeff Capel was spotted giving Carter something of a pep talk. Clearly Duke needed some scoring inside. Carter hit a short jumper early in the second stanza, after going 0-4 in the first. Carter then got a layup thanks to a nice pass from Duval. Carter then hit a three which was set up by Allen. Wendell Carter scored 9 of Duke’s first 11 points in the second half. That one point lead grew to six.

With help from Duval and Trent, the lead continued to grow as the second half rolled along, finally reaching 10 points at 57-47. The resilient Tigers devoured all of that margin, tying the game with a combination of penetration inside against the Duke zone, a (rare) 3 ball, and some transition. But at 57 all, Duke stopped Clemson cold.

Trent got fouled while shooting a three pointer. He made all three free throws. That broke the tie. Carter scored a critical field goal the next time down on a power move against Thomas. Then came more free throws, by Allen-his only points of the half-and Carter.

Meanwhile, Clemson came up empty on its final four offensive possessions. Duke prevailed 66-57. This is not the kind of tempo this Blue Devil team prefers to play, yet the performance embodied the kind of gritty effort often required to beat Clemson at Clemson.

Positives for Duke

Duke did not win the end of the first half or beginning of the second half in Chapel Hill. That’s where that game got away.

Normally a program that shoots free throws well, the Blue Devils had fallen to an unthinkable 12th in conference only games at 69 percent. The Duke mantra has always been “we make more free throws than the other team shoots.” Hard to do that when you miss the free throws you get.

Sunday’s game pitted the league’s top two 3-point shooting teams against one another. Both Duke and Clemson came in shooting 39.4 percent in ACC games. Duke made more 3’s Sunday, and shot much more efficiently from beyond the arc, hitting 6 of 13 against 5 of 20 for Clemson.

The turnover stat was pretty close, but Duke capitalized more off Clemson’s mistakes, especially as mentioned, with that first half zone press that led to transition baskets. We did not see much transition in Littlejohn either way the rest of the day.

The rebounding stat is the one that matters most. Even while Bagley was playing, Duke’s defensive rebounding percentage, No. 1 in early January, plummeted during ACC play. UNC, for example, rebounded 42 percent of its misses against Duke, collecting more than half the available offensive rebounds in the second half. Georgia Tech rebounded 35 percent of its misses, which helped the Yellow Jackets cut into Duke’s big lead in that game, though the Blue Devils still won. By last week, Duke ranked an astounding 14th in Defensive Rebound Percentage in ACC play. Only Pittsburgh was worse.

In fact, when I asked Mike Krzyzewski after the UNC game about his team’s defense, which had begun to show improvement (more on that coming up) he noted that while Duke was doing a better job defending the first shot it was not preventing the second shot.

“We’re not finishing the possession,” he said.

Duke did keep Virginia Tech off the offensive glass on Valentine’s Day and limited Clemson’s second chances Sunday. Neither VT nor CU ranks among the league’s best offensive rebounding teams, but for a Duke club starved for defensive “one and done” possessions, these last two games mark progress.

Impact of changes

Since going all zone, Duke has improved on the defensive end statistically. In fact, in the latest, hot off the presses ACC stats for conference only games:

The Blue Devils, as we saw Sunday, are learning how to force some turnovers in their zone, especially when they expand the defense full court. If they can consistently maintain their box outs after opponents’ missed shots (more difficult to do in zone than man to man), the Blue Devils will have significantly strengthened a defense that was one of the league’s worst not so long ago.

As to the other change, putting Allen in charge of the offense, the three game statistics for Duke’s four key players provide all that needs to be said:

Three-game totals

What you see here is balanced scoring and double figure scoring for Duke’s current top players. Two-point percentage is down a little because Duke has played some tough defenses. But the “attack the basket” strategy has led to more efficient 3-point shooting and a big improvement at the free throw line. Duke is getting to the line more the last few games with Allen running the show, and the team’s best players are shooting more free throws.

After beating Clemson, Duke now has sole possession of 2nd place in the ACC at 10-4. The Blue Devils appear to be a lock for the double bye next month in Brooklyn. With three home games still to play, plus a trip to Virginia Tech, it’s hard to imagine Duke falling all the way to 5th place.

In short, we have seen an impressive three game stretch by the Duke Blue Devils. And eventually they will get Marvin Bagley back.