After a loss at Clemson two weeks ago, Duke fell out of the top 10 for the first time in more than six seasons and its doubters were getting louder. The Blue Devils clearly had something to prove following that defeat. And their four-game winning streak entering Monday’s matchup against Pitt was a good sign. But they needed more.
The No. 17 Blue Devils got it during an 80-65 road win over the No. 18 Panthers.
They improved their defense throughout a stretch that included wins over Virginia, Miami, North Carolina State and Florida State. But Monday’s victory over a ranked Pitt team in a hostile environment said a lot about this team’s new mindset.
Duke is still a potential force on the national scene. The Blue Devils are still strong contenders in the ACC.
Here are Five Things that impacted Monday’s win:
Jabari Parker's second-half impact: Although the freshman star had 16 points before halftime, Parker’s greatest contribution might have come in the second half. Pitt coach Jamie Dixon had clearly decided to make some adjustments at the break. Actually, one adjustment: Cover Parker like a blanket. And the Panthers did that. He scored five points after halftime. Michael Young and Jamel Artis and everyone else on Pitt’s roster tried to stop him. They trapped him. They were physical with him. They stacked his side of the floor. Pitt basically developed an “anyone not named Parker will have to beat us” philosophy. One problem, though. Parker was the perfect decoy. During one second-half possession, Quinn Cook faked a pass toward Parker’s side of the floor. Cameron Wright, Artis and a third Pitt defender all bit on the fake, as underrated glue guy Amile Jefferson cut to the lane for an easy bucket. Duke’s other weapons took advantage of the pressure that Pitt put on Parker in the second half.
Will someone please guard Andre Dawkins? Yes, Pitt had to stop Parker. He had too much fun in the first half. But Pitt failed to see the rest of the floor in the second half. See Dawkins. The reserve guard has been spotty all season. Big games have followed mediocre production. But he’s shooting 45 percent from the 3-point line. From 7:47 to 2:12, Dawkins went 4-for-5 from the 3-point line. Pitt and Duke were battling until that explosion in the final minutes. But the Panthers never adjusted. They never put a hand in Dawkins’ face. I understand their preoccupation with Parker and all, but he just had too much room.
Duke’s new defense: A few weeks ago, Duke was ranked in the 90s of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Teams rated that low don’t win championships. The Blue Devils allowed Notre Dame to score 1.23 points per possession during a Jan. 4 loss. In their loss at Clemson Jan. 11, they gave up 1.14 points per possession to a team that’s currently ranked 320th nationally with a 64.5 PPG average. But the Blue Devils have been a much stingier unit during this five-game winning streak. They’ve climbed to 60th> in adjusted defensive efficiency. And they allowed Pitt to score 1.04 points per possession Monday. National player of the year candidate Lamar Patterson went 4-for-14 against them. This defensive elevation has been the most significant and promising change for Duke in recent weeks.
Duke is tougher now: It’s hard to measure toughness, but assertiveness and consistent aggression are reasonable qualifiers. Duke faced a scrappy Pitt team that had a habit of making opponents look ugly for 40 minutes. The Panthers did that to No. 2 Syracuse in a Jan. 18 loss. And No. 13 Cincinnati registered only 44 points in a win over Pitt last month. The Panthers had held previous opponents to just 7.5 second-chance points per game, fewest in the ACC and the No. 3 mark among the top seven conferences, per ESPN Stats & Information. Duke didn’t care about that. The Blue Devils tussled in the paint to grab 11 offensive rebounds and record 20 second-chance points. That’s proof this team recognizes the value of each possession and the consistency this new ACC battle will demand. Duke is growing. And it’s not backing down.
Rodney Hood quiets Lamar Patterson: Hood’s offensive contribution certainly helped. He went 5-for-10 and scored 13 points. But he harassed Patterson all night and disrupted Pitt’s offense. Patterson was considered a snub by many when he wasn’t mentioned on the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list. He’s definitely a talented player. But he missed 10 of his 14 shots Monday, even though he scored 14 points. He had five turnovers and missed four of five 3-point attempts. He was relatively silent for most of the night. Hood’s defensive pressure was a major factor in Patterson’s struggles. Hood won the most important individual matchup on the floor.