Duke men's basketball, showing signs of shedding team's 'tough time,' breezes by Syracuse

ByDavid Hale via via logo
January 22, 2022, 4:49 PM

Mike Krzyzewski isn't ready to say his team is back to top form, but if Saturday's 79-59 win over Syracuse is any indication, Duke might finally be in the cusp of reaching its enormous potential.

Krzyzewski lamented the frustrating month that preceded Saturday's blowout victory in which the No. 6 Blue Devils were beset by COVID-19 cancellations, late-game flubs and an injury to starting guard Trevor Keels. But Saturday felt like old times.

With Keels sidelined with a leg injury, the Blue Devils still set a season high with 25 assists and 14 3-pointers and had five players in double-digits in scoring en route to the biggest blowout in their history against Syracuse.

"It's been a tough time since Christmas," said Krzyzewski, whose team saw games against Clemson and Notre Dame postponed this month before losing late to both Miami and Florida State. "They're hanging in there, and they're getting better. For a few minutes in the second half today, I thought it was the best we played."

Just a few minutes? Krzyzewski insists Duke hasn't entirely recaptured the magic that led to November wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga, but the dominance on the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday told a different story.

Jeremy Roach started in place of Keels and had nine assists, while Wendell Moore finished with 15 points and eight assists. The pair blanketed Syracuse's top shooters -- Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard -- who finished a combined 2-of-19 from 3-point range.

Meanwhile, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said his team's No. 1 priority was to shut down forward A.J. Griffin, but that plan fizzled from the opening tip, with Griffin making two quick buckets. As the Orange defense reeled in the paint, Duke added salt to the wound by draining 14 3s, five from Griffin.

Paolo Banchero added to the performance with a career-high 13 rebounds to go with 15 points.

Add it all up, Banchero said, and it was more than just a few elite minutes in the second half.

"We could've cut down the turnovers, but in terms of offensive and defensive success, all in one, it was [our most complete performance]," Banchero said.

Keels is likely to miss Tuesday's game against Clemson, too, Krzyzewski said, but after initial fears the injury could be serious, he said he's optimistic Keels can return soon.

In the interim, Duke's ball movement didn't miss a beat without Keels. The 25 assists were the second most in an ACC game for the Blue Devils since 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, and Duke assisted on 83% of its made field goals against Syracuse, a high-water mark since 2006. Moore and Roach combined for a 17-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio.

"We've got great players all over the floor, and we trust everyone to make shots," Banchero said. "We're never hesitant to pass the ball."

Moore called it "a program game" -- the type of performance that, even for the best teams, is a rarity, when all the parts click into place and the team gets a look at what it can be at its best.

Whether that look lasted a full 40 minutes -- Duke emptied its bench with more than 4 minutes remaining, cruising with a 30-point lead -- is up for debate. But there certainly were enough glimpses of the Blue Devils' potential to serve as a statement that the team that knocked off top-ranked Gonzaga two months ago hasn't lost its edge.

"Moments like these don't come that often," Moore said. "When you're in it, you just have to be in that moment, and I think our guys were all stuck in that moment and that's why we played so well today."

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