Every team needs a dawg – a player who will unapologetically take over a game at a moments notice. A player who plays bully ball – aggressively rebounding, driving to the basket and welcoming contact it brings, and asserting themselves on defense. Before Tuesday night’s 73-79 loss to Pitt I wasn’t sure who that guy was for the Blue Devils. Matthew Hurt, DJ Steward, Jeremy Roach, Jordan Goldwire and Wendell Moore have all shown flashes this season, but last night we learned who the dawg…the alpha dawg on this Duke team will be – Jalen Johnson.
When the Blue Devils found themselves in a 15-point hole against an older-aggressive Pitt squad with 16:29 remaining in the 2nd half, Jalen Johnson went on a 7-0 run by himself, changing the tide of a game that was on the brink of blow-out city. In the 2nd half alone Johnson scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and dished out 4 assists. Without his fight, Duke would’ve lost by double digits.
It’s not that this Blue Devils’ squad isn’t talented. They are. They have depth, size, talented guards and shooters, but they’re young and lack toughness. One is excusable. The other isn’t.
“I feel like we shouldn’t put ourselves in that position in the first place,” sophmore Wendell Moore said after Tuesday’s loss. “The last two games, we started out not too good, going down 10, 12 early. The second half, we were down 15 early and we shouldn’t have to keep fighting back. We should be the team that comes out and fights first. We should be the team that goes up 10-0 and make the other team fight back.”
The blueprint has been laid – play bully ball, fight for rebounds, be tough on defense, aggressively attack on offense and the Blue Devils will retreat. Older squads are more comfortable with this style of play. It takes some getting used to for younger, less experienced squads. It’s something you develop with time, but good players, elite players, get over that learning curve quickly. It’s taking longer for Duke’s young team to acquire that level of toughness and a season truncated by the pandemic didn’t help.
But while many Blue Devil fans have entered panic mode with their team suffering back-to-back losses and outside of the Top 25 poll for the first time since 2016, Coach K isn’t ready to hit the button yet and neither should his players.
“They’re 18, 19 and 20. There should be no panic buttons on young people who have a chance to play at this level of college basketball. If there was a panic button, it would be for 73-year old people who have coached for 46 years and I don’t have one. They got to get tougher. This is such a young team and it’s as young of a team as we’ve had for a long time. We can’t afford to be down, we have to respond.”