Early-season losses threaten to expose weakness
Senior classes, stately sharpshooters and a penchant for lockdown defense have been staples of a 30-year tradition for the Duke Blue Devils.
That is precisely what has many scratching their heads at the product seen from this season's version. Behind the starpower of sensation Jabari Parker, the team came into the 2013-2014 season ranked among the top five preseason contenders expected to make a push for the Final Four.
With nearly a quarter of the season gone, Duke has already tackled a pair of top-five matchups. Twice the team has stumbled against foes that wore them down in the final minutes of the game. The difficulty coach Mike Krzyzewski faces with his immensely talented team is the lack of length, particularly in the post. For all the positive attributes they bring the table, his rotational players are few and depth could be an issue in March.
Parker has been compared to Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins, who was once unanimously assumed to be the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. The Blue Devils' forward has been superior in every conceivable category, but his team fell to the Jayhawks in the second game of the season when he burst onto the scene in his hometown of Chicago. It was the first in a series of breakout performances, as he tallied 27 points and nine rebounds.
In Duke's loss to Arizona, Parker shot 7-for-21 from the field and committed five turnovers. Despite the poorest showing of his young career, the freshman is still averaging 23 points and eight rebounds per game and is shooting close to 60 percent. The Wildcats displayed the requisite length and athleticism to make Parker uncomfortable and perhaps established the blueprint for other teams to exploit the Blue Devils' weakness.
Former blue-chip recruits Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston are tweeners masquerading as big men. The result has been an extremely small lineup that has provided the worst defensive metrics in recent memory by a Krzyzewski-coached team. Improvement is likely for a young group that has not played its best basketball yet, so the possibility remains that Parker at the 4 can work and he can become a premier shot-blocker.
Until then, Duke will continue trying to outscore its opponents. The road will not become any easier, as a Dec. 19 date with UCLA looms large as the Blue Devils' final major tune up for Atlantic Coast Conference play. Once league action begins, two games with both Syracuse and North Carolina will likely go a long way toward determining whether Duke has righted the ship or if its inability to match up with other national contenders in the paint will compromise the design of this unit.
Staff Writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 888-3575, or firstname.lastname@example.org.