NEW YORK -- Even after losing to St. John's by the score of 93-78, Duke is still 19-2 and poised to run away from a relatively weak ACC field. So, yes, it's a bit early to sound any serious alarms. But on the heels of a 15-point shellacking at Madison Square Garden, it's worth asking whether the Blue Devils really have what it takes to make a deep NCAA tournament run.
What Went Right
To get to 19-2 and inclusion in Ken Pomeroy's top 10, a team has to do a lot of things well. Two of the things Duke has going for it are Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. The Blue Devils may have faltered as a whole on Sunday, but Singler and Smith each created better than a point per possession on 23 percent and 34 percent of Duke's possessions, respectively.
Maybe Singler hasn't built on his junior season, but he hasn't regressed either. His offensive rating has improved in each of his four seasons, as all the while he's has maintained a significant role in Duke's offense. Smith has blossomed in Kyrie Irving's absence, going from a high-usage, high-efficiency two-guard to an even more efficient, more active floor leader. When Duke's chances were circling the drain late in the second half at the Garden, it was Smith's defense and three-point shooting that kept Duke from losing by 20-plus points. The play of Smith and Singler were in large part responsible for Duke's not-too-shabby 1.05 points per possession mark against St. John's, as none of the team's three other starters mustered more than 0.77 points per trip.
And while it's true the Blue Devils were the basketball personification of a sieve on defense on Sunday (see below), Duke is in fact a very good defensive team. Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are legitimate shot-blocking threats, while all three of Duke's big men (Plumlee, Kelly and Miles Plumlee) are solid defensive rebounders. Smith is a steal waiting to happen on the perimeter and Singler has great athleticism and length on the wing.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski didn't speak about many positives after his team's loss, but he did project an air of confidence in his team's overall ability.
"We're 19-1 coming in," said Krzyzewski. "So we've had pretty good effort. Since Kyrie's injury, they're 11-1 and playing their butts off. Today we didn't."
What Went Wrong
Krzyzewski pointed to a lack of energy to explain Duke's sluggish start and poor defensive performance.
"We were not ready to compete," Krzyzewski said. "We had blank expressions on our faces and guys weren't talking and that's my responsibility. Our program didn't do well here today, and it's all of our responsibility."
That lack of effort led to a truly awful defensive performance against St. John's. The Red Storm tallied 1.26 points per possession, nearly a fifth of a point better than the next-best Duke opponent this season (Michigan State's 1.07). Even more jarring was the fact that St. John's offense posted its third best showing of the season -- only Drake and Northwestern allowed this offense to score more efficiently.
Oddly enough, St. John's performance against Duke seemed less of a fluke than their output against Northwestern. Steve Lavin's team ran its offense to near perfection at times on Sunday, turning crisp back-cuts and on-target entry passes into easy points. Lavin also deserves credit for an offensive gameplan that took advantage of some hard-to-find matchup issues. Lavin spread his motion offense out, at times moving all or most players outside of the three-point arc and bringing either of the Plumlee brothers or Kelly with them. The Red Storm guards -- and even quick forwards Justin Burrell and Justin Brownlee -- took advantage of the empty paint to convert 58 percent of their two-point attempts.
"They didn't post us and they got into the lane," Krzyzewski said. "They got into the lane when we went zone in the first half. They got into the lane when we didn't press them. They got into the lane when we played man."
The brothers Plumlee and Kelly make an athletic bunch of post players, but St. John's has the one-through-five athleticism that can give Duke a good test, and there's no guarantee the Blue Devils won't meet a similar squad in the tournament. (Missouri comes to mind.)
Where Duke Stands
When something as extraordinary as "St. John's over Duke" happens, it's natural to grasp for a greater meaning. Judging by the amount of worry expressed by Krzyzewski after the game and the overall state of the Blue Devils' season, it's more than likely what happened on Sunday was a case of Duke failing to give its best effort and St. John's playing, as Krzyzewski put it, a "beautiful game." After all, if you're going to lose, you might as well lose to a Big East team on the road.
Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.