The Duke editors here at BvB decided to put together a small compendium of epitaphs for the 2012-13 season. We now present them for your reading pleasure.
ALEX: When viewed from the narrow lens of NCAA Tourney performance - which is the lens most often used for long-term viewing - it can often feel like the 21st Century has been more down than up for Duke (Championship years notwithstanding - and really the privilege to say that might well nullify the "feeling".) That is because humans are usually more strongly motivated and imprinted by the negative rather than the positive. I personally take the glass half-full perspective of many of Duke's seasons this century that ended in earlier-than-seed expectation exits by seeing how much those teams overachieved to have the regular season success that they did. Granted that perspective is easier to get with distance. But for all the annoying bar conversations, for all the years of casual fans, and for the sake of the back and forth with our rivals, it's very nice to have a team this year that I didn't have to see the glass half full - it was more than half full.
A healthy Ryan Kelly (and Seth for that matter) for the full year will always make for fine hypothetical banter, but the truth is this Duke team was easy to root for. We forget how big a step forward Quinn Cook made from last year, or how big a leap Sulaimon made, when we have the recent memory of some late season erratic performances. But the progress of both was not a given in November. I loved watching Amile get some run (though never enough) and I'm excited to see his development. Tyler (and probably Seth) proved to be a rarer example on this team of a guy who got better as the year went on and I'm glad to have his attitude (and dare I say his reliable three-point shot) next season. Josh, MP#, and Murph will have a chance to carve out a role on the wildly different 2013-14 team: we shall see . . .
But I would be remiss not to single out the three senior leaders as reasons why I'm proud of this Duke season: Seth playing with chronic pain all year (transforming himself into being more than just a shooter put me in mind of JJ), Mason lived through so much criticism of his "unrealized potential" to be the best force we've had in the paint since Shelden Williams (I'm sorry we never gave you the ball enough Mason - it was a mistake we made a lot. That's the only downside of being on a team of shooters.) And, of course, Ryan Kelly. Now, do a favor for me - put a picture of Freshman Ryan in your head. No, all the way back. Yikes, right? To see what he's become - someone who could make an NBA roster - makes an old man smile.
MCLEOD: Contrary to what Will asserts Duke fans should feel, I walk away from this season content. I think the team was filled with 4-5 players who would be great number-two options on a really good offense. Seth was the closest thing to a "go to" guy on a night in/out basis, but could still be shut down by opposing defenses. Without at least one more dominant personality/player (even though we apparently had the best big man in the country), it's hard to imagine the team running through to a title without everyone shooting really well. I think I said before that the Creighton and MSU games got me to a place of contentment with the season. The Louisville game doesn't factor in for a few reasons. Namely, that they're really good and playing really well. I do wish Amile and Murph had gotten more burn, but I always tend to wish for more playing time to allow the bench players to develop (optimistically assuming that they will develop). I love Amile's length and his motor. I wonder if there will be someone next year with a strong enough alpha personality to push the team from "nice" to that "play angry" state that everyone loves these days. I really want it to be Quinn, but his head drops too much on the court when mistakes happen for me to think it will be. Thornton has some of that willfulness in him, but he is a bit too subversive to be the team's emotional leader. I like his role as the instigator.
SCOTT: This Duke team surprised me as much as any team outside of 2010. In November, I was expecting a top 10-15 team, with a chance at a nice run, but not in the class of Louisville, UK, State, UCLA, those 3-4 Big10 schools, etc. (Mind you - this was preseason). The pre-ACC changed all of that and I wonder what could have been if: 1) Curry had not been playing hurt all year; and 2) Kelly had not had to be reintegrated. I frankly feel they overachieved, but were also victims of their early season success in the minds of those who ultimately felt they disappointed. Next year's ceiling and floor for Duke are sky high and lower than we'd like to admit. I am unabashedly optimistic.
BART: It's hard to look at Louisville and not notice how much they've grown as team since we first played them this year. Obviously, the reintroduction of Dieng into the lineup was huge (ba-dum-bum), but the fact is, they had a big chunk of time to grow together and improve as a unit. We all hoped that Duke would improve when Kelly went down, largely as a result of the playing time/experience that our bench would get. That may have happened to some extent, but the negative impact of losing the ability to improve as a cohesive unit of our best players for the six weeks he was gone cannot be overstated. For all intents and purposes, Duke was playing at more or less the same level in their last game as they were when the played Louisville the first time, while the Cardinals were playing at a demonstrably higher level than they were at Atlantis (injury-inspiration notwithstanding).
To be completely clichéd, injuries are part of the game. Given what Duke had to deal with on that front, one could argue that this was a fantastic season. And I have yet to talk with a Duke fan who feels anything but good about the year as a whole. We are all somewhat inured to playing the "what could have been" game after the last several seasons and playing it only leave you frustrated anyway. Playing "what was" (30 wins + an Elite 8 berth) leaves me feeling content if not genuinely impressed.
As far as the Seniors, my feelings about them can be boiled down to this: all good players, all great guys, but not necessarily all great leaders in the way that Duke needed them to be. As a group they seemed far too... unassertive, I guess. We need leaders who will demand more of their teammates, who will demand the ball (ahem Mason), and who assertively demand that the team not lose. Ryan, Seth, and Mason were not those guys.
My epigram for this year's Duke team is "a team that liked winning, but didn't hate losing nearly enough." It wasn't a team that responded well to in-game adversity (we trailed by double digits in every loss and came back from double digits only once to win). Or, said another way, we didn't have the kind of aggressive and demanding on-court presence that lends the top-down mental toughness you need to survive the runs good teams will always put on you.
We learned we have two really strong-willed, talented, and leadership-oriented freshman. We learned we have a point guard who, though he still has a lot to learn, can absolutely handle the position at an elite level. And, lastly, we learned we can fall short of the Final Four and still have a very good year.