How Duke can still make the NCAA Tournament

The Blue Devils snapped a losing streak but lost a top scorer

Duke freshman center Mark Williams has gone from playing limited minutes early in the season to logging a season-high 27 in the Blue Devils’ win Saturday over NC State. (Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP)

Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he isn’t thinking about the NCAA Tournament right now. If true, he’s about the only person with a connection to Duke who isn’t.

The Blue Devils have struggled through their toughest season in nearly four decades, dating back to the early days of Coach K’s time at Duke when the athletic department’s patience gave him the chance to endure some rough seasons to build the program.

Accustomed to 40 years of winning, the Blue Devils’ fans are not quite as patient.

Duke has struggled through a pair of three-game losing streaks this season and slipped below .500 for the first time since the early days of the 1999-2000 season. It’s the worst Duke has been this late in the year since 1983.

The Blue Devils haven’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 1995. With less than a month to go in the regular season, Duke has work to do to even get onto the NCAA bubble. The 25-year streak is definitely in jeopardy.

Here’s what the Blue Devils need to do to have a shot at dancing in March.

Fix the chemistry

On paper, Duke’s tournament hopes took a hit on Monday when freshman scorer Jalen Johnson opted out of the rest of the season. Johnson and Duke both said the decision was mutual and done to help get him 100% after suffering a foot injury so he can be prepared for the NBA Draft.

Multiple reports in the national media — including Jeff Goodman, Adam Zagoria and Sam Vecencie — painted a darker picture, however, claiming that Johnson and people close to him clashed with Duke’s coaches and even cast doubt on whether the foot injury that kept him out for several weeks in December and January was legitimate.

Johnson made the decision to leave two days after he played just eight minutes against NC State. Following the game, Krzyzewski said the freshman was “knocked back” by the Wolfpack and that he has to play the guys that are “better that day.”

If there’s any truth to the reports of discord, then Johnson’s departure may end up being addition by subtraction, much like when Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed from the 2015 Duke team that went on to win the national championship. That move took place two weeks earlier than Johnson’s opt out, giving Duke less time to work out the chemistry issues.

Fix the defense

The Blue Devils have been decidedly un-Duke-like on defense, with Coach K opting for a zone for long stretches and ripping the team for being “soft” after one loss. Duke may have turned a corner in Saturday’s win over NC State. The Blue Devils held NC State to 2-of-10 from three, a season-best performance by Duke’s perimeter defense. The Blue Devils also forced turnovers on a season-high 29.4% of NC State possessions.

Center Mark Williams, who has been one of the main beneficiaries of Johnson’s reduced playing time, has helped Duke’s defense by protecting the rim. He had five blocked shots against the Wolfpack and is a solid safety valve at the basket for a Duke team that has struggled to stop guards from penetrating at times this season.

Continue the hot shooting

Duke struggled with its shot early in the season as it worked six freshmen, including two new guards, into the rotation. Things seem to be clicking lately, however. Duke has hit 30-of-65 (.462) from three in the last three games, posting three of the Blue Devils’ top effective shooting percentages of the year.

Win the tough games

It seems obvious, but the best way into the NCAA Tournament is to beat good teams. Duke has played a tough schedule, as always, but the Blue Devils are in this position because they haven’t won their toughest games, losing to Illinois, Michigan State, North Carolina and at Virginia Tech and Pitt.

Duke’s win over State was its second-best road win of the year, statistically, behind the ACC opener at Notre Dame. The Blue Devils will have plenty of opportunities to add to their NCAA resume, with Quadrant I games against Virginia, and at Georgia Tech and UNC in the final two games of the regular season. Duke also has three Quadrant II games, against Wake, Louisville and Syracuse.

Simply put, getting those six wins would make the Blue Devils 14-8 overall and 12-6 in the ACC, likely putting them on the right side of the bubble heading into the ACC Tournament. Anything worse than 4-2 and Duke will likely need to win out in Greensboro to keep its tournament hopes alive.