Early on it was apparent that the Deacons were ready for a fight – literally. Duke hadn't faced a team that was this ready to play nor this physical all season long. Rather than back down early on, the Blue Devils actually responded in kind and took what the referees were giving both teams. It was just another taste of the kind of opponent and environment that Duke could run into late next month.
It was also good to see Shavlik Randolph show flashes of the player who was a long time fixture atop the class of 2002 rankings. Rather than looking timid on the offensive end, Randolph reverted back to attacking the basket each time he got the ball instead of looking unsure when the opportunities presented themselves. Foul trouble limited his minutes, but overall this was one of his better performances of the year offensively despite the box score.
Sticking with the mystery men emerging theme, Duke fans have to be thrilled to see seldom used Nick Horvath breaking into the rotation to spell Williams and Randolph. On the night Horvath finished with seven points and three rebounds, including a pair of important tip-ins while battling in traffic.
As a team Duke managed to convert 15-of-17 from the free throw line, while shooting a respectable 49% from the field for the game. A lot of that had to do with patches of offensive rebounding and a willingness to look inside before kicking it back out to the perimeter – something that didn't happen in Raleigh last Sunday.
What Went Wrong:
Though they met Wake's challenge in the first half, Duke simply failed to keep up with the Deacons as the game wore on. A combination of fatigue, fouls, and tough conversions from Wake ended up equaling too much momentum for the Blue Devils to hold off.
In the end, the Deacons were able to score easily nearly every time down the floor beginning around the seven minute mark of the second half. Several times Wake would get dribble penetration and then a conversion or a dish off for an easy basket. Some of the baskets seemed to be answered prayers, but they were dropping because the Deacons were getting themselves into good position to finish at the hoop.
That's a major difference from Duke's 18 game win streak when the defense stopped both penetration and opponents from getting easy shots inside. Now that isn't happening and teams are wearing the Devils down as the games come down the stretch. Tonight was no exception as Duke was scorched in the second half to the tune of 62% shooting from the field (18-of-29) and 51 points.
If the defensive problems weren't bad enough, the offense never got anything out of the team's leading scorer, J.J. Redick. While Daniel Ewing was certainly able to step up and carry the load (19 points on 5-of-8 3pt shooting), it was obvious that the Devils seemed a bit lost when Redick just couldn't get his offense going.
With Randolph in foul trouble, Duke was also out-rebounded by the Deacons in crucial situations including late in the game on a possession in which Wake Forest was able to grab an offensive rebound and run over a minute off the clock. Overall Duke finished with just a 35-32 rebounding deficit, though several times it would have seemed to be a double figure discrepancy.
Player of the Game:
With his backcourt mate in a funk, Daniel Ewing stepped up and carried this team throughout much of the game. The 6-foot-3 junior continually knocked down big jumpers and finished with 19 points in 34 minutes.
Duke returns to action this weekend in the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor when they face Gary Williams' Maryland squad. While the Terps aren't as good as they've been in the last few seasons, they are tested and unafraid, which is what you expect from a Williams coached team.
This almost becomes a "must-win" if the Blue Devils hope to remain in a favorable position for March Madness. There is still a long way to go in the season, but losing three straight will probably knock Duke out of contention for a top seed in the tournament, especially with Stanford and St. Josephs looking more and more able to run the table in the regular season.
Hopefully the developments of an extended rotation will continue to happen from this point forward in hopes of extending the tired legs in crunch time. Extended minutes for Randolph alongside Williams and minutes for Horvath in relief of both is certainly a positive thing as the season rolls along.