Duke introspective after long R&R, readies for Wake trip

Mar. 04, 2014 @ 07:15 PM

Some interesting and important milestones passed while Duke’s men’s basketball team enjoyed a rare late-season break from games.

The Blue Devils haven’t played since beating last-place Virginia Tech 66-48 on Feb. 25 at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They return to action at Wake Forest Wednesday, March 5 (7 p.m., ESPN2).

In the meantime, Duke returned to the top five of the Associated Press Top 25, landing at No. 4 when the new poll came out on Monday.

Also, the calendar turned to March — college basketball’s most important month.

“I think we are in a good place,” Duke junior guard Quinn Cook said. “We are playing the best defense we have played. I think guys aren’t content with winning by 20 or winning by 1. I think guys want to keep getting better. I think we are in a good place.”

Having played five games in 11 days prior to this break, Duke (23-6, 12-4 in ACC) has only two regular-season games to play. After tonight’s trip to play Wake Forest (15-14, 5-11), the Blue Devils close the regular season against rival North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium Saturday night (9 p.m., ESPN).

But, at this time of year, the Blue Devils said getting their game to its highest level is the most important thing.

“Going into March it doesn’t matter who we play,” Duke sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. “We’re just worried about Duke. We look at our offensive and defensive schemes. We just focus on us and how we are playing.”

Having a break from games allowed Duke to focus on itself rather than going through game preparation. Having played so many zone defenses lately, Duke worked to hone its man-to-man offense as well.

But the areas of the game that involve hustle and grit are foremost in the Blue Devils’ minds.

“Rebounding and defense,” Cook said. “Those two things win championships. I think the offense will take care of itself. Just keep playing defense the way we have and with all five guys getting in there rebounding, I think we can be special.”

Duke has been one of the nation’s best offensive teams all season. The Blue Devils lead the ACC in scoring at 79.6 points per game. Lately, though, the defense that Cook and Sulaimon referenced has been playing better.

Over Duke’s last seven games, only one team has scored 70 points or more against the Blue Devils. That team was North Carolina in its 74-66 win over the Blue Devils. That is Duke’s only loss in their last seven games.

Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski said Tuesday he could see a difference in the players after the break from games.

“Our guys are rejuvenated,” Wojciechowski said. “You didn’t have the mental stress of preparation, game, preparation, game. Some of that has allowed us to be more mentally fresh, too.”

Where they are ranked doesn’t really matter much to the Blue Devils. In basketball, the tournament decides who is best.

But they can read the calendar and they know when it’s time to focus on playing their best.

“There are always places for us to improve,” Sulaimon said. “One is defense, just being a collective unit and playing as one. Just being sharper on offense. We’re a dynamic offensive team that can score with any of them. If we stay sharp with our offensive execution we can get any shot we want.”