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Duke’s defense could be in for a long night vs. North Carolina


Mike Miller

Duke’s defense has seen better days. That makes the timing of tonight’s showdown against No. 5 North Carolina … unfortunate.

The Heels (20-3, 7-1 in ACC) responded to losing starter Dexter Strickland – their best on-ball defender – by inserting sharpshooter Reggie Bullock into the lineup. The results are familiar to anyone who’s seen a Roy Williams offense when it’s clicking: Points come quickly and in bunches.

In three games with Bullock as a starter, UNC’s scoring 1.12 points per possession, a huge boost from its previous ACC games. The defense also hasn’t suffered. That makes for a challenging day.

“They can be an offensive juggernaut, and especially at home,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “So we have to play really good defense in order to have an opportunity to beat them.”

So. About the Duke defense.

The Devils (19-4, 6-2) have allowed opponents to score more than one point per possession 10 times this season (they haven’t done that the last two years) and six have come in the last month (including against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech!), the latest Sunday against Miami. That’s atypical for the Devils, who can usually be counted on for stiff defense. It’s often one of their saving graces when their shots aren’t falling.

Their turnover rate is down, opponents are hitting the offensive glass and finding more open shots than normal. It’s a team that Coach K hasn’t quite figured out. From The Dagger:

Krzyzewski apparently doesn’t see the same level of leadership he has witnessed in past years when Duke had seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith last season or Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas the one before that.

“The last two years, we haven’t lost that many, but those teams were very mature,” Krzyzewski said Monday on the David Glenn Show. “With Scheyer and Singler and Smith and Lance and Brian, we had older, very dependable guys. You knew what to expect. This year’s team is a team that doesn’t have those guys.

“One of the best ways of communication is if someone on your team is communicating your message. That’s what Singler did on a daily basis through his effort or Nolan Smith through his effort and talk. Or Scheyer, Lance and Brian. They did that as big brothers. That’s something we’re missing on this team. Not being negative about our team, but we just do not have that. As a result, the message you’re trying to get across may not be getting as deep as it needs to be.”

If there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s that Duke’s fared well vs. UNC lately, winning four of the last five. It also hasn’t lost two straight in three years.

That makes Wednesday’s game a wee bit important. Duke’s approaching it as such.

“You’ve got to move on because this game is a big game for us,” freshman Austin Rivers said. “If we can get a big win at Carolina, it can turn things around - not like we’re going down any bad path. We just struggled (Sunday) with that loss. A big win against Carolina can change a lot of things for us.”

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.