The excuses for Duke following its 83-81 loss to Maryland on Saturday could stretch from here to Durham
The Blue Devils were playing their third game in six days. Seth Curry look hobbled. Mason Plumlee looked broken. Duke shot 6-of-19 from three.
Yet Coach K's team—playing on the road against a talented opponent—only lost by two.
And while all that helps frame the narrative for this one defeat, it does not, unfortunately, explain away the two things that clearly ail this Blue Devils team: poor interior defense and even worse rebounding.
Both played a leading role in Duke's third ACC loss. If untreated, both will play a leading role in the loss that ends Duke's season.
And from what I'm seeing now, said loss will precede any cutting of nets.
The problems on D are directly attributable to the loss of senior forward Ryan Kelly. As ESPN Insider John Gasaway points out in this post from February 13, the Blue Devils interior defense has been a shambles since Kelly went down with a foot injury on January 8.
Without Kelly in the lineup, the Blue Devils have allowed their last five opponents to make 51 percent of their shots inside the arc. Coach K's team is also forcing fewer turnovers while fouling more often.
Against Maryland, all of the above was startlingly obvious. The Terps shot 60 percent from the floor and made 34 trips to the line, the final two of which proved the difference. The five players in Maryland's rotation listed at 6'8" or taller—Alex Len, Charles Mitchell, Jake Layman, James Padgett and Shaquille Cleare—shot a combined 17-of-26 (65.4 percent).
Freshman forward Amile Jefferson lacked the strength to hang with Maryland's frontcourt. Josh Hairston couldn't manage the task without fouling. And Mason Plumlee—a suspect defender on his best days—fancied himself a turnstile as soon as foul trouble arose midway through the second half.
If Kelly can return in time for the ACC tournament and re-establish the rhythm he had early this season, Duke can make a major leap forward on defense. Before Kelly went down, the Blue Devils defense in the painted area was much improved from the season prior. But that's a big if.
Even then, it's hard to see how Kelly's return will help Duke on the glass. In his 15 games this season, the 6'11" senior posted an anemic 12.9 percent defensive rebounding rate. (For reference, point guard Quinn Cook checks in at 11.4 percent.) On the offensive glass, Kelly wasn't much better.
Overall, Duke is one of the worst rebounding teams in the ACC. In conference play, the Blue Devils rank 11th out of 12 teams in defensive rebounding percentage. For the year, Coach K's team is 206th nationally.
Maryland, with its brawn and length, exploited Duke's weakness in that area to the tune of eight offensive rebounds (and a 38-17 rebounding advantage overall). The result was a game where the Blue Devils had to contest multiple possessions on the defensive end and needed clean first looks on offense to score points.
It should be mentioned that the Terps (seventh nationally in offensive rebounding percentage) are particularly well designed to exploit Duke's rebounding deficiencies. But so too are Minnesota, Syracuse, Indiana, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Louisville, VCU, Cincinnati and Kansas State, each of whom rank top 20 in offensive rebounding percentage.
And unlike Maryland, none of those teams are as likely to commit 26 turnovers in a game, effectively nullifying any possession advantage gained along the boards.
All of this leaves Duke in a perilous place. The Blue Devils have to rely on superior guard play and three-point shooting to overcome extreme deficits down low.
And they can do it—for a game at a time or against the dregs of the ACC.
But for six straight games in March?
That may be asking too much.
Note: All tempo-free statistics courtesy of KenPom.com.