Luke DeCock: Duke basketball continues to get better, just in time for Blue Devils’ biggest test yet | Basketball
DURHAM, NC – In the aftermath, Jon Scheyer and Steve Forbes agreed on many things. This duke’s guards were better. That Dereck Lively continues to influence no-goal games. That Wake Forest does things on offense to ask questions the opposing defense doesn’t want to answer.
Most importantly, as Wake Forest continues to struggle through the toughest part of their schedule, Duke has made great strides since the Demon Deacons won at Winston-Salem earlier in the ACC schedule.
“It’s amazing how different we are from when we played Wake,” said Scheyer. “Of course they are also much better, but for us we have grown a lot.”
“This is not the same team we played in December,” Forbes said. “You’ve grown up a lot.”
The road has remained unfriendly for Duke aside from Saturday’s Georgia Tech doubling, though every series has to start somewhere. Still, the Blue Devils are more comfortable at home, where they remain undefeated but not always drama-free. Tuesday fit into that pattern, a 75-73 win that looked comfortable until the Deacons rose late and pushed Duke to the limit.
Coming back from what seemed a certain disaster against Pittsburgh in the second half, Duke stuck with blood and sweat to beat Miami without either game ever feeling absolutely safe or secure. Tuesday looked safe and secure until Duke’s offense stalled and the Deacons roared back to threat in the last minute, even as Tyree Appleby’s Summer 3-pointer buffed a bottom line that wasn’t really that close.
But they were all victories nonetheless.
Things have rarely gotten easy for Duke this season, but they’re starting to get easier even with Dariq Whitehead still out. Everyone’s been waiting for Duke to come around the corner. Maybe the Blue Devils were already doing it when no one was looking. That three-point loss at Virginia Tech — which could have easily gone the other way had MJ Collins’ celebratory throat hit on Kyle Filipowski been punished — will look pretty good through the end of the season the way the Hokies are playing. Regardless of Tuesday’s defeat in Miami. (VT shot 57 percent…and lost.)
So: The timing might actually be pretty good for Duke to host North Carolina for the first time since that game, which despite the italics could still mean one of those games. Some of the faces will be different on the Duke side and very few on the UNC side and what happened last year may not be primarily on their minds, it will be for everyone else.
“Obviously it’s definitely a little more juice, but I just want to come out and get the win,” said Jeremy Roach. “I don’t worry too much about her and the crowd that’s going on around us, just focusing on ourselves.”
Meanwhile, Wake Forest is subjected to a severe reality check. The Demon Deacons were going with victories over Duke and Virginia Tech and Clemson as they encountered a series of tough games that posed questions Wake couldn’t answer. Virginia, in Pittsburgh, NC State, at Duke. It’s rough seas, and the Deacons almost stayed afloat, losing the last three by six points total.
On the other hand, Wake Forest won’t beat anyone when Andrew Carr and Damari Monsanto are a combined 4-on-22 from long range, as good as Appleby is and playing the role of transfer-who with a headband on Tuesday -becomes a star at Wake with high Score.
Relief might be arriving shortly in the form of a trip to South Bend, but this was the time for Wake Forest to pick up the wins it needed to break into NCAA tournament competition, and instead… didn’t. Virginia Tech could now be the ACC’s best hope for a seventh bid (assuming Clemson, who lost at Boston College Tuesday, doesn’t implode) because Wake will now need something close to a miracle.
To be that close again on Tuesday, at a place where Wake Forest hasn’t won since 1997 – when Roy Williams was coaching in Kansas and Forbes was a junior college coach with at least some hair, his words to both of them before 24 Playing – makes it difficult to balance progress in these fights with the disappointment of losing them.
“We’ve changed a lot about this narrative over the last year and a half,” Forbes said. “Let’s just keep changing it. By the way, this is a Quad 1 opportunity, right? We still have a lot to do. Hey Virginia Tech, everyone wrote them off last year and they went through the ACC tournament. There’s still a lot to play for, man. But it hurts, yes it hurts. It hurts.”
Duke is about to go through what Wake just went through with trips to Miami and Virginia after the UNC game, but the Blue Devils are getting better and just in time. Wake Forest too, although it’s a bit harder to say at the moment.
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