Lost amid the furor over Grayson Allen’s penchant for tripping opposing players 10 days ago was a damning postgame quote from Duke’s Luke Kennard.
“I just don’t think we’re a very unselfish team right now,” Kennard told the Fayetteville Observer. “And that’s both offensively and defensively. We’ve just got to figure out who we’re going to be.”
Many of the issues that concerned Kennard were laid bare Saturday afternoon in fifth-ranked Duke’s 89-75 loss at Virginia Tech. In the Blue Devils’ ACC opener and first road game of the season, they trailed from start to finish and looked nothing like the team that began the season No. 1 in both polls and was expected to evolve into a juggernaut once its three elite freshmen got healthy.
With no true point guard on the roster and Allen suspended indefinitely, Duke’s offense once again devolved into 1-on-1 isolation plays for long stretches of both halves. The individual talent of Kennard (34 points) and Jayson Tatum (18 points) kept Duke within striking distance for awhile, but the Blue Devils shot only 41.8 percent and wasted far too many possessions.
That offensive effort wasn’t nearly good enough for Duke (12-2) on a day when it put forth by far its worst defensive performance of the season.
Virginia Tech (12-1) used its undersized but quick four-guard lineup to either push the pace and attack in transition or spread Duke out and drive to the basket. Guards Justin Bibbs, Ahmed Hill, Chris Clarke, Seth Allen and Justin Robinson scored a combined 76 points and the Hokies shot 55.2 percent from the field and got to the foul line 13 times.
Credit Virginia Tech for exploiting Duke’s weaknesses, but the Blue Devils’ lack of effort was alarming too. They didn’t get back in transition. They didn’t rotate quickly enough in man-to-man. And they weren’t active enough when they switched to zone.
Never were Duke’s issues more apparent than in the final two minutes of a game long since decided. With no Blue Devils defenders in sight on a fast break, Allen had time to flip the ball off the backboard to Clarke for a vicious one-handed alley-oop dunk.
Good god Va. Tech just went Warriors on Duke. This game is a wrap. pic.twitter.com/RTsQNDWGpv
— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) December 31, 2016
Virginia Tech’s victory snapped a nine-game losing streak against Duke and served as another milestone in the Hokies’ evolution from ACC laughingstock to NCAA tournament contender.
When Buzz Williams made the stunning decision to leave Marquette and come to Virginia Tech in March 2014, the Hokies were in the midst of a stretch of four straight last-place finishes in the ACC. Not only did they make an improbable eight-game leap in the league standings last season, they also appear to be poised to take another step forward this year.
Seeing Virginia Tech beat a shorthanded Duke team in Blacksburg wasn’t a massive surprise, but the Blue Devils’ lack of competitiveness was definitely more eye-opening. In their first game without Allen, they seemed to shrink from the moment rather than band together in the face of adversity.
Allen’s eventual return will provide Duke another perimeter scorer who also doubles as the team’s leader in assists, but getting their preseason All-American back will not solve all of the Blue Devils’ problems. They need more from a freshman class billed as the nation’s best just a couple months ago.
Harry Giles is a mess defensively and is progressing slowly in his return from his third knee surgery in the past three-plus years.
Marques Bolden is still working his way back into shape after sitting out the first month of the season and has scarcely played in recent games.
Frank Jackson hasn’t scored in double figures in any of his last five games, nor has he evolved into the true point guard Duke would love him to be.
Jayson Tatum has been the best of the quartet, but even though he’s piling up points and rebounds, he’s still shooting below 40 percent from the field.
The silver lining for Duke is that this is still the nation’s most talented team and it still has three months to forge better chemistry and get its freshmen playing to their potential. But there’s no denying the Blue Devils have some concerns right now and there’s no denying that Kennard’s ominous postgame comments last week seem telling.
Duke looked better a month ago when their three most heralded freshmen were all out with injuries, and who could have seen that coming?
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