Duke-Elon: Was it Rust?

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Duke hadn’t played in 11 days before their match up against Elon last night, and I heard a lot of talk about rust after the 75-62 victory. Besides turnovers, though, the stats from the game might not speak to rust as much as expected. Many point to Duke’s shoddy three point percentage, and I agree that many of the shots were wide open. But three pointers are fickle, and the fact that Duke made such a high percentage of well-guarded isolation 3’s against Wisconsin while missing wide open shots coming from great passes against Elon speaks to this. Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor shot 6 for 15 on free throws. This sounds terrible, but Winslow had shot 6 for 14 in his last four games before his 1 for 4 performance, and Okafor had been 8 for 16 before his 5 for 11 night of work from the stripe.

Elon’s game plan was to mix man-to-man defense with elements of their 1-3-1 zone. They were willing to live with Duke either beating them from the outside or Okafor and Jefferson occasionally getting easy matchups inside if Duke was able to get the ball past the swarm of defenders guarding the block. Duke has been extremely successful this season using the dribble drive, but besides a couple of Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook plays, the driving lanes were almost altogether cut off. Justise Winslow fell into this trap, bricking outside shots and driving into defenders waiting to draw charge calls. Winslow is going through some growing pains at this point in the season as defenders are playing off him, daring him to shoot. His release point, as I’ve stated many times so far this year, varies greatly, causing his shot to be extremely inconsistent. But if he doesn’t make teams respect his shot, his slashing becomes much harder. He is still contributing in transition, but sometimes becomes a liability in the half court sets. Matt Jones played a bit too reckless as well, trying to create after realizing he wasn’t hitting from outside. Again, this is exactly what Elon wanted from Duke.

The player most affected by Elon’s defense was Tyus Jones. I’ve written and said that a Coach K offense is only as good as the point guard, and Tyus needs to run the offense early to get into a rhythm. Unfortunately, Quinn controlled the ball for much of the first half. Tyus rifled a couple of great passes to open players under the rim for buckets, but his aggressiveness off the drive was non-existent. Was this 100% because of Elon’s defense, or was it a Freshman type of day coming off of a long break? I can’t be too sure of the answer, but he looked flustered, and when both of Duke’s starting guards are not creating off the dribble, the offense breaks down, which is why Duke turned the ball over 17 times with a very uncharacteristic 24% turnover ratio.

The game would have been even closer if not for Rasheed Sulaimon. For the second straight contest, he provided Duke with energy off the bench on offense and defense. He consistently took his defender off the dribble and found lanes, finishing himself or assisting others using his potent jump-pass that must drive Coach K crazy. He even blew a couple of layups or else he would have had a huge stat line. There was an unfortunate situation in the final minutes of the game when Elon’s Luke Eddie clung to Sheed’s arm for an extended period of time while on the ground and Sheed roughly shoved him off. It’s very easy to find blame in both parties, but Sulaimon took full responsibility after the game, quoted by Shawn Krest as saying  “Not making excuses. I lost my cool, did something Duke players don’t do, shamed myself & my family.” Wow.

My main frustration from the game came when Elon was able to get in transition because a Duke player would hang their head after a missed shot. Elon would leak out and push the pace while the player felt sorry for himself. This continuously happened with various Duke players, and cannot be attributed to rust. There is no excuse for Elon playing the game at a higher tempo than Duke (73.2-70.8) and the transition points would start runs that kept Elon in the game. Any team given an opportunity for momentum will happily accept. Besides Elon’s transition points, I would say that Duke played a solid, if not good defensive game.

Jahlil Okafor had his best game on his 19th birthday, making quick, aggressive moves against smaller defenders on his way to a 25 point, 20 rebound effort, and while I’d like to give him even more credit, his statistics combined with Amile Jefferson’s 13 points on six for seven shooting gave the two big men over half of Duke’s points, the type of number, along with Duke shooting 65% from two-point range, that Elon seemed more than willing to accept while cutting off driving lanes.

I think it is extremely easy to correlate all negative aspects of the Duke-Elon game to rust, or as Coach K said, believing they were as good as people were telling them, but this is not what I saw. Three pointers, as anyone who understands basic basketball will tell you, will fall in some games and not others. I wouldn’t harp too much on that stat as a Duke fan. I witnessed a team led by a young point guard who doesn’t understand that he has to come ready to attack every game. He has been up and down all year, but his performance in Duke’s biggest games has covered this up. I don’t attribute his passive game to rust, but rather his understanding of how important he is to the team. If he continues to play as he did against Elon, other players will try to do too much on offense, and will be problematic. As for Duke’s players hanging their heads after a bad offensive play, leading to transition points and momentum for the opponent, this needs to stop immediately. The culprits seem to be the underclassmen, with Justise Winslow at the forefront. There is no time to feel sorry for oneself during high level competition, and I can at least say that it’s good to learn this lesson against an over-matched team. Quinn, Amile, and Rasheed better grill the youngsters after last night’s game, because heading to the holiday break after losing to Connecticut on Thursday would be quite the lump of coal in their stocking.