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Underachieving Duke is not playing like a national title contender

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Duke lost to Clemson 72-59 (USATSI)

We already knew Duke had issues defending dribble penetration and keeping opponents off the offensive glass.

Now we know what happens when the Devils' offense also disappears.

In a deflating 72-59 loss at Clemson on Saturday afternoon, Duke shot 33.9 percent from the field, settled for way too many ill-advised jump shots and struggled to generate many opportunities in the paint. Wings Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker combined for 35 points but point guard Quinn Cook missed 11 of the 14 shots he attempted and none of Duke's four shooting guards managed more than one made basket.

Solid defense has always been Clemson's strength under Brad Brownell, but there's no way the Tigers should have been this effective shutting down a Duke team with two first-round draft picks and multiple other highly touted recruits. The Devils actually led by six at the half but were outscored 18-5 in the last eight minutes of the game, missing 13 of 14 shots during that stretch and scoring their only field goal on a 3-pointer from Cook with 6:28 remaining.

"We are not a very good team," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters. "When I say we’re not very good, we’re not very good compared to who we’ve been. And who we’ve been has been very good."

A bad loss at Clemson (11-4) wouldn't be panic-inducing were it an isolated result, but 16th-ranked Duke (12-4) hasn't lived up to its preseason top-five ranking since the season began.

Losses to fellow elite programs Kansas and Arizona were excusable. Unexpectedly narrow home victories against Vermont and East Carolina were a bit more troubling. And now Duke has started ACC play with losses to Notre Dame and Clemson sandwiched around a win over Georgia Tech, the Devils' first 1-2 start to ACC play since the 2006-07 season when they lost to VCU in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

To avoid a similar fate this March, Duke must clean up its recent scoring issues and at least become a serviceable defensive team.

A lack of a true center capable of altering shots at the rim hurts Duke's defense, but there's no excuse for the Devils being so shoddy on the perimeter. Unlike previous seasons when Duke's perimeter players lacked the lateral quickness to stay in front of their men off the dribble, wings like Hood, Parker, Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton should have enough size, length and athleticism to be adequate defenders.

If Duke's defense doesn't improve, then the pressure will shift to its offense to return to the level of efficiency it showed early this season. Otherwise it's clear the Devils will be vulnerable against anyone on the road, even a Clemson team that lost at home against Florida State by 15 points two nights earlier and has  defeated only two ranked teams in Brad Brownell's three-plus seasons.

The last time Duke's football team was ranked higher than its basketball team was Dec. 1957. The football team ended that season No. 16 in the final poll and the basketball team didn't enter the rankings until Feb. 1958.

Duke football checked in 22nd in the USA Today Coach's Poll and 23rd in the AP poll. Improbably, a Duke basketball program that began the season with national title hopes could slip beneath that point as soon as Monday.

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