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Duke basketball is in an identity crisis

The preseason No. 1 is under .500 in ACC play so far. Can Duke still save the season?

NCAA Basketball: Georgia Tech at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Krzyzewski knew he had to stick around for one more game. Two days after announcing he would take a leave of absence to undergo back surgery, the legendary Duke coach was on the bench against Georgia Tech to set up the Blue Devils for the immediate future.

Coach K knew exactly what he was doing: he wanted to be the one to lift Grayson Allen from his indefinite suspension after one game and subsequently settle Duke into the starting lineup it was always supposed to have. That meant giving freshman Harry Giles his first start next to senior center Amile Jefferson. It meant making Allen the de facto point guard, unleashing breakout sophomore Luke Kennard at the two and integrating another recently healthy blue chip freshman, Jayson Tatum, on the wing.

All Duke did was win that game by 53 points — no small accomplishment, considering Georgia Tech has beaten North Carolina, Florida State, and NC State this season. Krzyzewski must have left thinking his team was in a good place. If not the superteam many presumed they’d be this summer, then at least a great offensive squad with legitimate Final Four aspirations.

That all seems like so long ago now. Duke has lost three of its last four games, most recently to an NC State team who hadn’t won at Cameron in 22 years before doing it on Monday. The Blue Devils are under .500 in the ACC and might not be ranked in next week’s polls.

What changed? Can Duke still become the team that was named the consensus preseason No. 1, the one that was supposed to dominate the sport with an incredible recruiting haul joining an experienced and talented veteran cast?

Right now, Duke is a mess. The only way out is by solving the identity crisis that’s been plaguing them all season.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The wheels started to fall off for Duke before the season even began. The program announced top recruit Harry Giles had undergone a procedure on his left knee eight days before the start of the year. At that point, Giles was still considered the possible No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft, but there was no ignoring his injury history. Giles had torn the ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his left knee as a high school sophomore, then tore the ACL in his right knee in the first minute of the first game of his senior year at Oak Hill.

Duke knew it would have to bring Giles along slowly, and thought it had the depth to do it. What Coach K didn’t realize is he wouldn’t have two of his other top freshmen at the start of the season, either.

Jayson Tatum injured his foot in practice and missed the team’s first eight games. Five-star center Marques Bolden also suffered a leg injury and was on the same timetable as Tatum. This meant the team that took the court against Kansas on Nov. 15 wasn’t the same one expected to compete for a national title in March. Still, Duke hung with the Jayhawks all night, only losing in the final seconds when Frank Mason canned a game-winning jumper.

Even in defeat, the breakout star of the night was Luke Kennard. No one saw that coming. When Duke started to produce superteam conjecture in the preseason, Kennard was something of an afterthought. He was a five-star recruit out of high school and even broke LeBron James’ Ohio scoring mark. His freshman season was promising, yet on a Duke team this loaded many assumed he would be the sixth man.

It quickly became apparent Kennard was Duke’s best player. That type of breakout would be championed on any other team, but for Duke it only made things more complicated.

Grayson Allen was supposed to be that guy. He was the one who was named the No. 1 player in college basketball at the onset of the season after averaging an ultra-efficient 22 points per game as a sophomore. He was the one who bypassed the draft for a shot to become a Duke legend by winning his second national championship. Instead, Allen got off to a sputtering start before incidentally making himself the biggest story in the sport.

When Allen tripped Elon’s Steven Santa Ana on Dec. 21 and proceeded to melt down on the bench, Duke’s season had taken on a new context. Coach K was defensive after the game, but eventually caved to massive media pressure to suspend him. Allen was officially the most hated player in the sport.

For Duke, the more pressing concern was Allen’s play: he was always at his best as a downhill attacker, and now he was asked to play point guard. Meanwhile, Kennard needed his shot attempts as an emerging star and Tatum did, too. Kennard’s rise almost left Duke with too much talent and no natural floor general to get everyone the ball. Suddenly, the Blue Devils looked like a team with competing agendas.

Whose team is this supposed to be anyway?

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

With Coach K still recovering from back surgery, interim head coach Jeff Capel has juggled the lineups. After Duke went on a massive second half run to beat Miami last week with Kennard and Allen on the bench, Capel decided to remove them from the starting lineup against NC State. It might have worked if Allen didn’t shoot 1-of-9 from three when he entered the game while the entire team failed to contain superstar freshman Dennis Smith Jr.

The performance was symbolic of Allen’s struggles all year: his three-point shot has dropped from 41.7 percent last year to 31.6 percent this year. His scoring is down 6.5 points per game and his efficiency has dropped along with his usage rate. Allen was always a good creator, but trying to make him a full-time point guard to accommodate Kennard and Tatum has taken him out of his comfort zone.

Tatum has had his own problems. He’s putting up solid numbers for a freshman in the first 12 games of his career, but he hasn’t been very efficient doing it, shooting only 43.1 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from three. He also has 32 turnovers to 24 assists. It’s a symptom of an offense that often looks too willing to go one-on-one rather than share the ball.

Duke’s defense is a problem, too. Giles hasn’t been the rim protector he has the tools to be coming off the knee injuries. Against NC State, Smith exposed the lack of athleticism in Duke’s backcourt. If this team faces an elite scoring guard in the NCAA tournament, who is supposed to stop him?

Duke needs Amile Jefferson back at full strength to anchor the defense after he missed two games with a foot injury. It needs to forgo iso ball and start sharing the rock. It needs Coach K back, too.

There’s still nine McDonald’s All-Americans here. No one is ready to write off that type of talent just yet. But for a team that was supposed to tear through college basketball this year, Duke has real issues.

If Krzyzewski can get everyone to buy into their roles, this team can absolutely still win the national title. If not, Duke will be left wondering how a team this talented could have so many problems.