It took a questionable call, a clutch free throw and a desperate defensive stand for Duke to avoid what would have been November's most stunning upset.
An improbable four-point play by Vermont's Candon Rusin had just tied the score at 90 with just over 10 seconds to play when Duke forward Rodney Hood attacked the rim from the top of the key. Vermont's Clancy Rugg appeared to get a lot of ball on his attempt to block Hood's shot in the lane, but refs called a foul, enabling Hood to sink the go-ahead free throw and propel Duke to a 91-90 win.
Vermont can't complain too fervently about the foul call since it still had a chance to win the game on its final possession. Sandro Carissimo hurried the Catamounts downcourt, drew a double team and found Rusin in the corner, but his driving layup came about a full second after the final buzzer.
That riveting final sequence extended Duke's win streak in non-conference home games to 106 and saved the Blue Devils (4-1) from an unfathomable loss. Vermont had opened the season with four losses in five games, falling to Saint Joseph's, Bryant, Providence and Wagner.
Duke's narrow escape further highlights the defensive issues the Blue Devils must fix to emerge as the national title contender they were billed to be entering the new season. Vermont shot an astonishing 64.8 percent from the field and became the third team in six games this season to score more than 1.1 points per possession against Duke's defense, a damning indictment of the Blue Devils' ability to generate stops.
The two big problems for Duke defensively so far is its guards have struggled to contain dribble penetration and its frontcourt lacks a rim-protecting center. Six-foot-9 forward Amile Jefferson is not a shot-blocking threat and the lone true center on the roster, injury-plagued Marshall Plumlee, has played just five minutes per game this season and did not see the floor Sunday.
Unless Plumlee suddenly commands more playing time in the future, Duke's only realistic option to solve its defensive woes is to get better at stopping the ball in order to make up for its lack of a traditional last line of defense.
A potent offense headlined by Hood and Jabari Parker is formidable enough to overcome a mediocre defense against the likes of Vermont or East Carolina, but it won't be against the better opponents on Duke's schedule.