In January, when Duke went four consecutive games without hitting 40% of its shots, it sure looked like a zone defense would be the last thing the poor-shooting Blue Devils needed.
Saturday’s game at Syracuse showed how far Duke’s offense has progressed since then.
The Blue Devils torched the Orange’s 2-3 zone defense by hitting 50% of their 3-pointers, getting contributions from starters and reserves in a commanding 77-55 win at the JMA Wireless Dome.
Six different Duke players hit 3-pointers in the blowout win as the Blue Devils made 13 of 26 shots from behind the arc.
After struggling offensively a month ago, the Blue Devils hit 54.5% of their shots against Syracuse. Duke has shot 43% or better in six of its past eight games, topping the 50% mark in three of them.
Duke’s worst shooting night in its last eight games, 39.3%, came in a 63-57 win over North Carolina on Feb. 4.
With four regular-season games to play before the ACC and NCAA tournaments, the Blue Devils are starting to show they are more than just a defense-first team that has to grind out wins like the one they posted over UNC.
That’s not to dismiss the defense, which has been a staple of this team’s success all season.
Duke defended well again at Syracuse, holding the Orange to their fewest points in an ACC game this season.
Syracuse entered the game averaging 74.6 points per game. So Duke has now held 23 of its 27 opponents below their season average.
“We just could not score,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “A lot of that is Duke. They are a really good defensive team. Physical. They took our inside game completely away.”
Inside play factored into how solid Duke played offensively, as well. That’s how the Blue Devils have increased their scoring of late. They insist on getting freshmen big men Dereck Lively (7-1) and Kyle Filipowski (7-0) involved, either by scoring or executing kick-outs for open perimeter shots as part of the half-court flow or after grabbing offensive rebounds.
“As a team, throughout the season,” Filipowski said, “we’ve shot an incredible percentage when we get the ball inside and then move it out, rather than just swinging around the perimeter and taking a contested three.”
That sentence explains the difference from Duke’s shooting problems in January and what the Blue Devils have shown of late.
It also helps that Duke – finally – has all of its players available. From guard Jeremy Roach missing three games with a balky big toe to forward Dariq Whitehead’s strained leg that sidelined him for four games, the past two months have been rocky.
Whitehead, in particular, adds a dimension that can really boost Duke’s offense.
He made 4 of 6 3-pointers over the Syracuse zone, including three in the first half when the Blue Devils opened a 19-point lead. Known more as a guy who slashes to the basket for points, Whitehead has made 13 of his last 19 3-pointers, a stellar 68.4% clip.
As he’s been doing lately, Whitehead brought that production in a reserve role. That’s quite the pop off the bench.
“He’s got a great offensive groove right now,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said.
Scheyer’s usual substitution routine involves graduate student center Ryan Young spelling Lively before the game is five minutes old. Young was first off the bench at Syracuse.
Whitehead and graduate student forward Jacob Grandison were next off the bench.
While Whitehead poured in shot after shot, Grandison also added a 3-pointer during the first half. His score ignited a 21-2 Duke run that turned the game lopsided.
When those two guys are shooting like that, the Blue Devils have quite the edge in bench scoring. It shows the depth of talent Scheyer has at his disposal.
Filipowski’s 14 points and 12 rebounds at Syracuse gave him his 14th double-double of the season. Junior guard Jeremy Roach scored 17. Freshman guard Tyrese Proctor scored just eight points but he made two 3-pointers and also led Duke with six assists.
That production from so many players, if it continues consistently, will make Duke tough to beat next month when tournament play arrives.
The Blue Devils still have four regular-season games to play before the ACC tournament. Last-place Louisville is up next on Monday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
That game starts a stretch of three consecutive home games for Duke, which is 13-0 on its home court this season.
Suddenly, Duke is one game behind fourth-place Clemson (19-8, 11-5) in the ACC standings. A solid finish over the next two weeks could give the Blue Devils a double-bye into the ACC tournament quarterfinals.
Their improved play on offense put them in this position, and it brought them a stress-free win on Saturday at Syracuse.