WINSTON-SALEM — Even with its abundance of talent, the Duke basketball team is still very much a work in progress.
Especially on defense.
The fact that the Blue Devils have still won 18 games and are ranked fourth in the nation despite their defensive growing pains speaks to how much better they can still get if they can figure out a way to consistently keep their opponents from scoring.
They took a major step in that direction Tuesday by forcing Wake Forest into 15 first-half turnovers and 21 for the game while holding the Deacons to a 5 of 20 performance from 3-point range in an 84-70 win at Joel Coliseum.
Three Duke players recorded multiple steals as Duke won its fifth straight ACC game, three of which have come on the road.
“We’re getting better on defense,” said senior guard Grayson Allen, who finished with 17 points, six assists and three steals. “We have such good athletes and length and talent that we can really stop teams, get in passing lanes and just go. Our defense was huge tonight because it’s what allowed us to get the lead when other things weren’t going right.”
Playing Wake for the second time in just 11 days, Duke (18-2, 6-2 ACC) put a concerted effort into aggressively pressuring the Deacons’ ballhandlers on the perimeter, taking away their passing lanes and forcing them into bad decisions.
The strategy paid dividends right away by forcing six turnovers on Wake’s first eight possessions of the game. Though only three of those early miscues turned into points, the Blue Devils’ relentlessness on defense eventually translated into greater offensive productiveness.
With Allen and wing Gary Trent Jr. doing most of the damage in transition, combining for more than half of Duke’s scoring in the opening 20 minutes, the Blue Devils turned the Deacons’ 15 first-half turnovers into 26 points.
That helped them build as much as a 17-point lead, with only minimal contributions from prized freshman big men Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr.
“Duke is obviously a very talented basketball team. We didn’t do ourselves any favors by how we handled the ball in the first half,” Manning said. “We had 15 turnovers and they led to far too many points. In the second half we did a little better, but that hole is probably too much to overcome.”
That Wake (8-12, 1-7) was even as close as 41-30 at the break was a testament to its own improving low post presence, Doral Moore. The 7-foot-1 sophomore dominated the offensive boards, scoring 10 of his 14 first-half points on second-chance opportunities.
He finished the game going 9 for 9 from the floor on his way to an 18-point, 12-rebound performance before fouling out. But his effectiveness was neutralized by Duke’s defense in the second half.
It was about that time that Bagley and Carter began to assert themselves on the offensive end. Between them they went to the free-throw line 24 times, converting 18 while both finishing with double-doubles.
Carter had 23 points and 12 rebounds. Bagley added 16 points and 11 boards while Trent finished with 19 points.
“Our wings can score too, but our main thing is to get it into the post,” Trent said. “It’s just a matter of attacking and finding our spots. We just play our game, play hard and it works out for us.”
Scoring has never been an issue for these Blue Devils. Their average of 92.1 points per game is by far the best in the ACC. The problem is that they also rank 13th in a 15-team league in scoring defense at 72.8 points per game.
Although they had had a slight hiccup midway through the second half in which Brandon Childress scored 11 of Wake’s points in a 19-7 run that cut a 20-point lead down to eight, coach Mike Krzyzewski was pleased with a defensive effort he said has been building since giving up 96 points in a loss to NC State 2½ weeks ago.
Childress matched Moore’s total of 17 points, but he also committed five turnovers in his career-high 32 minutes off the bench. That was still better than starting point guard Bryant Crawford, who coughed it up eight times.
“They’re a young team and we didn’t have all that practice before. We had games and then breaks,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re moving our feet really well right now. It helps us in man and zone, and we work on it every day. The guys have been enthusiastic about it and it’s paying off. We’re getting better. We’re getting better defensively.”