WHEN DUKE IS DUKE…
The odds of beating a Duke Blue Devil team – even one as disjointed and adversary-filled as the one that came into Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion Monday night – drop precipitously when the long-time college basketball power follows its blueprint.
In Duke’s 84-74 victory over the Irish – Notre Dame’s third loss in a row and fourth in five games – the Blue Devils shot well from start to finish. They converted 53.6 percent of their shots in the first half (15-of-28) and 50 percent of their shots in the second half (13-of-26) to rarely provide an opening for Notre Dame to rally.
When they did provide that opening – several unforced errors resulted in 15 turnovers for the game – Duke compensated by converting an astonishing 23-of-24 free throws (95.8 percent), including a perfect 19-of-19 by mainstays Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Matt Jones and Jayson Tatum.
“This speaks volumes of our guys,” said Jeff Capel, who has filled in as interim head coach for Mike Krzyzewski the last seven games, winning four.
“I think we’re growing up and we’re becoming tougher. A lot of things we’ve been through have helped us come together and figure this thing out. We showed resiliency throughout this whole game.”
After allowing Notre Dame six offensive rebounds in the first half, the Blue Devils kept that to two in the second half as they pulled away in the overall carom numbers, 38-26.
The Irish did a nice job of preventing Duke from hurting them from three-point range, limiting the Blue Devils to 12 attempts (five made), and just 1-of-5 in the second half.
But Duke scored 20 of its 47 second-half points from the free-throw line and was a judicious 12-of-21 on two-point attempts (57.1 percent) to maintain a lead over the final 27:40.
“We knew they were going to make runs,” Capel said. “They can score the basketball. But every time they made a run, we stepped up.
“One of the most beautiful things about it was that you didn’t really know who was doing it; you just knew Duke was scoring. That’s when we are at our best.”
Duke massacred the Irish in paint scoring, 22-4.
“When we can keep it to one-and-done, that helps us,” Brey said. “It was tough tonight because we were in the game because they didn’t make 10 threes. They can really shoot it.
“So you can’t help guys much, and that means with guys like (Amile) Jefferson and Tatum, you’re kind of playing them with one guy because you just don’t want them kicking out and hitting threes. You hope you can absorb two-point shots and get enough offensively.”
OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY LACKING
Notre Dame shot a sizzling 56.7 percent (17-of-30) from the field in the second half, a mark that was above 60 percent most of the final 20 minutes.
But that type of offensive efficiency has been the exception to the rule in Notre Dame’s three straight losses.
In losses to Virginia and Georgia Tech, Notre Dame was a combined 43-of-105 (40.9) percent, which carried over into the first half against Duke when the Irish made just seven field goals on 26 attempts (26.9 percent).
The slow start to Monday’s game against Duke, coupled with previous stumbles, has prompted Brey to consider something that he hasn’t done all season – change the starting lineup.
In each of the last three games, Brey has gone with Rex Pflueger over Martin Geben to open the second half.
“We’ve got to probably start a different lineup,” Brey said. “I liked our five out there in the second half. We scored 49 points in the second half. We’ve got to consider starting small, like we did in the second half (vs. Duke) when the floor is open and we’re moving and cutting.
“We couldn’t get anything in the first half. We were stalling left and right, so that’s something we’ve got to consider. We’re going to have to score some points to beat some people in this league.”
The Irish are getting minimal offensive productivity from big men Martin Geben and Austin Torres, although Torres has provided effective minutes throughout the season.
Since his 10 points against Pittsburgh in the ACC opener, Geben has scored just 21 points in nine games, including a mere two points combined against Virginia, Georgia Tech and Duke.
In 10 ACC games, Geben has scored two points or less in six of them. He’s also had just 20 rebounds in the last nine games as his playing time has dwindled down to eight minutes against Georgia Tech and seven minutes versus the Blue Devils.
Torres has been sensational bringing energy, defensive disruptiveness and rebounding to the Irish cause in ACC play. But as his minutes have expanded, his point total has not. He’s now scored just four points in the last five games spanning 59 minutes.
He’s also a huge liability for the Irish at the free-throw line where he is a combined 0-of-6 the last two games.
In the last six games, Geben and Torres have combined for 133 minutes of playing time and just 21 points.
“There’s something about starting off with some buckets going in, even if the other team is matching it,” said Brey, referring to the need to change the starting lineup. “When you come to the (first) media timeout, maybe it’s 10-10. But you’re playing and we have do think about that.”
It’s not all on the Irish big men. Steve Vasturia was just 2-of-16 in losses to Georgia Tech (1-of-7) and Duke (1-of-9), including 1-of-9 from three-point range. His defensive responsibilities might be negatively impacting his performance on the offensive end.
“Steve did an unbelievable job on Kennard, and I think his legs on the offensive end showed it,” Brey said. “He needs some rest. Steve’s a guy that bounces back. But tonight, the offensive productivity was down because of how he guarded Kennard.
“We just didn’t want Kennard to get 30,” added Brey, which is exactly how many Kennard scored – in the second half – against Wake Forest Saturday.
In home losses to Virginia and Duke, Notre Dame is 10-of-39 from three-point range (25.6 percent).
Brey is looking at 6-foot-9 freshman John Mooney as an Irish big who may be able to provide more offense and mobility up front.
“We looked at Johnny in practice (Sunday), but I just didn’t get to him tonight,” Brey said. “But I do want to get to him a little more because he’s a bigger guy who can space the floor because he’s a stretch four.”
NOT ON THE SAME PAGE
The Irish suddenly can’t get their four weapons – V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia, Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell – scoring collectively as their season-long scoring averages indicate.
All four came into the Duke game averaging at least 14 points per game. The up-and-down Beachem scored 30 points against Syracuse, 23 versus Georgia Tech and another 20 against Duke with a mere three points in between against Virginia.
Vasturia has scored just 12 in the last two games combined, including two of Notre Dame’s 47 second-half points against Duke. Colson and Farrell have remained consistent, although opponents have begun to curtail Farrell’s lane penetrations.
T.J. Gibbs provided a spark against the Blue Devils, scoring all 12 of his points in the second half. But Gibbs and Rex Pflueger combined for 0-of-3 shooting in 24 minutes against Georgia Tech.
A weapon most of the season, the free-throw line has haunted Notre Dame in its four ACC losses. The Irish are a combined 48-of-71 (67.6 percent) from the free-throw line against Florida State, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Duke.
“I’m not going to over-analyze it because I don’t want our guys thinking too much,” said Brey of Notre Dame’s free-throw cold spell. “It’s like lining up a putt and thinking about it too much.
“Maybe some of it is fatigue and wear and tear, but that did hurt us. When we’re trying to dig out of a hole, we’ve got to make more free throws to have a chance.”
Notre Dame’s 12-0 run, sparked by Colson and a three-pointer by Farrell, pulled the Irish to within a point (63-62) with 6:25 remaining. Vasturia drove to the bucket with a chance to give the Irish the lead. But the shot came up short and the Blue Devils quickly went on an 11-2 run of their own to keep the Irish in chase mode.
“It’s the ebb and flow,” Brey said. “The first five games of the season, we made those plays. We haven’t made ‘em lately, and I don’t want to over-analyze and get too crazy because we’re going to be back in that situation again.
“Now, if anything, you’re trying to keep your group confident because we have put our team in good position with six league wins by Feb. 1.”
A seventh league win this Saturday in Chapel Hill would be no small feat.
“This is league play,” Brey said. “Now we’ve got to bounce back at Carolina. That’s how you’ve got to get going again in this league.
“The punches in league play are going to come, and we’re getting them right now. Hopefully we can be resilient enough to bounce back.”