Are we just spoiled? Are we overly critical? Do we expect too much?
The answer to all of these is probably yes. Years of winning ball have made your critically thinking Duke fan far more concerned about HOW Duke wins than THAT Duke wins, the latter being more or less a given with a program that rarely loses more than 6 games a year.I mean, I just saw my first Duke loss in Cameron in 2 years!
After a spectacular showing in 3 games in Maui, during which Duke seemed to noticeably improve game-to-game, the Blue Devils wandered out to Columbus and got pummeled in a game against OSU, the extremity of which pummeling many attributed to fatigue ( which I still believe is true). But the fact is, with perhaps the exception of the first half against Washington, this Duke team seems to be coming apart more than coming together or, more accurately said, playing apart instead of playing together. Yes, they are getting wins, but the impression one is left with that they are getting by. Here are some reasons why that might be.
- Chemistry - Going in to the season, the biggest question facing Duke was how they would fill the leadership void left by Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. 17 games into the season, they are no closer to answering that.The truth is that NONE of the upperclassmen have ever possessed what one would describe as natural leadership skills, but, more dismaying is that none of them seem to have cultivated any during their tenure. Coach K’s constant referral to this team as “young”, is inaccurate and I think he knows it ( I mean, when most of your minutes come from 4 Juniors and a Senior, you just can’t legitimately claim that). What he means( but can’t say) is “immature”, which is just shocking for a Duke team with that many upperclassmen. If the 2010 National Championship team epitomized Coach K’s “fist” philosophy of the true gestalt nature of any successful team, ( a collective fist causing more damage than five individual fingers - a fitting metaphor for a West Point man), then this team is trying to beat opponents by poking them to death (and can't decide which finger to use). There seems to be a fair amount of self-interest ( occasionally bordering on disinterest) and an overall lack of passion and effort from this team at times. The warrior spirit of Kyle and the irrepressible elan of Nolan have been replaced by, the fragile Andre Dawkins, the non-communicative Seth Curry, the cerebral but non-assertive Ryan Kelly, the hard-working but often unsure Miles Plumlee, and the taciturn Mason. The only player who seems to bring consistently strong intangible skills night in and night out is probably the least skilled basketball player of the bunch, Tyler Thornton. But he is smart and determined and plays his ass off on defense ( albeit often too aggressively in order to compensate for his lack of quickness) He precisely embodies what this team sorely lacks, and so will continue to get playing time. Talent we've got. In fact, I would argue that it’s mostly by out-talenting people that we’ve won as many games as we have, not by out-playing them. Look no further than the first 3 ACC games in which Duke gave up an average of 16 offensive rebounds a game if you need additional evidence of the Devils getting out-hustled. It’s consistently hard, team oriented play that we desperately need if we have any prayer of getting past the second round in March.
- Defense - This entry could largely be encapsulated with “See Above”, since the kind of pressure man-to-man favored by Coach K is predicated on communication, which is itself a product of team chemistry. If defense is truly a barometer of chemistry then my previous paragraph is well supported ‘cause this may be the worst defensive Duke team in years.As it currently stands, Duke is dead last in the conference in FG% defense, 8th in 3pt FG Defense, and 11th in scoring defense. Going back to 2003-04, there is not a single season that Duke didn’t finish in the top 5 in at least one of those categories and only finished out of the top 5 in scoring defense once ( this was 2005-06 , where they finished 7th. For reference, this was J.J.’s and Shelden’s senior year, when they lost to LSU in the Sweet 16. Similarly, that was a high scoring group that could not keep up with opposing guards on the perimeter and had no one resembling a wing player on the roster). In my estimation, there is not a single player on this team that plays defense at a level that is consistently above average. Tyler Thornton is very aggressive, hard-nosed and plays very well off of the ball but simply doesn’t have the lateral agility to stay in front of most guards. Mason and Miles are very good shot blockers and pretty decent most of the time defending the low post. As for the rest, it’s fairly simple : they just can not keep the ball in front of them. The number of easy buckets this team gives up is just staggering. Duke perimeter defenders ( and Ryan Kellyy) are either not quick enough ( Seth, Tyler, Ryan) ,defensive minded enough ( Andre and Austin) , or practiced enough (Quin). Nor do they communicate well. By comparison, the championship team of 2010 wasn’t the quickest group in the world either but they 1) had height at all positions 2) were tough minded 3) had one outstanding and versatile defender in Lance Thomas and 4) ( the most important one in my opinion) they had leadership, they communicated, and they played defense as a team. So, yeah, I’m back to beating that drum again.
- End of Games - Huh. That kind of sounds like “ End of Days” which would be apropos for this group come March if they don’t fix this. Duke was outscored in the last 7 minutes of these three games ( MSU 22-11, Michigan 25-16, Washington 28-16), the last 5 against UVA ( 10-4) and the last 3 against FSU ( 13-6) Those were each case studies in how NOT to close out a game : turnovers, bad shots taken early in the shot clock ( it’s enough to make me long for the oft maligned clock-sucking offense of yore), missed free-throws and poor defensive execution. This mostly stems from lack of experienced and confident leadership from the point guard spot. Seth and Austin and Tyler have not proven themselves worthy of leading the team in late game situations and Quin ( somewhat mysteriously) hasn’t gotten the chance. Tell me Duke fans, who do you absolutely trust with the ball if DUke is up 3 with 2 minutes to go ? Hmmm? Yeah, see, that’s a problem. That's why , at the end of the UVA, GT and Clemson games, Duke resorted to handing the ball to Ryan Kelly 35 feet from the basket and praying he would get fouled. If handing it to a 6’11” guy at half-court at the end of a game is your best option for ensuring a win, you can bet there are some straws being grasped at. Someone ( a guard,preferably) needs to step up and be that guy. I’m still pushing for Quin Cook here ; he’s got the handle and seems to be a pretty decent decision maker as evidenced by his strong assist-to-turnover ratio. What is more likely the case is that this will be Austin's role, and, until or unless he refines his decision making, that sword is going to cut us as often as it proves harmful to our opponents.
I realize that this could read like a lot of bashing on a team that’s won some pretty good games and I know that the slope separating honest appraisal from overt negativity can be a slippery one. This team had more question marks surrounding its makeup and potential than any Duke team in quite a while, and it has been at times enjoyable and interesting ( in addition to frustrating) thus far to see ( and not see ) answers bubbling to the surface. All of these issues are potentially fixable and no one ( hopefully) is at any risk of considering this a lost season. The success of this team will and should be measured in its growth as a team, not in wins and losses.