It's amazing how quickly things can change in college basketball.
Not so very long ago, Syracuse was undefeated and No. 1 in the nation. Now the Orange has lost three of the last four games and seems to be in free-fall. Just a few days ago, Duke seemed to be surging towards postseason play. Between a Jan. 13 victory over Virginia and the team's Feb. 25 victory over Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils had won 11 of 13 games - most by double figures. Duke had played one bad half - really a bad 15 minutes - in that stretch.
Then the Blue Devils travel to Winston-Salem and collapse against a bad Wake Forest team as Mike Krzyzewski suffers a dizzy spell on the sidelines and misses the postgame press conference.
Is Duke in trouble?
Well, if there is anything seriously wrong with Coach K, the answer is yes.
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Luckily, the first reports are that the incident was not serious and he'll be fine going forward. That's reassuring - because evidence suggests that the sudden removal of Duke's Hall of Fame coach can have disastrous effects. We saw that in 1995 when Coach K was sidelined with a bad back and a team that had been in the top 10 promptly collapsed … we saw it earlier this season when the coach mentally checked out for a week or so (by his own admission) after his brother's death and the team promptly opened the ACC season by losing two of three games.
But Krzyzewski returned in full force before the Virginia game and the team almost immediately rediscovered its mojo.
If - as is expected - he is back at full speed, then there is hope for recovery because just as quickly as things go wrong, they can go right again. We've seen numerous examples this season - Duke after its collapse at Clemson … Virginia after a 35-point loss at Tennessee … North Carolina after opening 1-4 in the ACC.
So there is hope, even though the loss at Wake is disturbing.
I noticed that in the aftermath, J.D. King cited the embarrassing ACC Tournament losses in 1990 and 1991. I've seen other Duke fans bring up the 2010 loss to Maryland in the last week of the regular season. You could also cite the loss to Maryland on Senior Night in 2001. All of those Duke teams made strong NCAA runs - a Final Four in 1990; national titles in 1991, 2001 and 2010.
However, I would argue that what happened Thursday night in Winston-Salem was in no way comparable to those late defeats. The difference is the quality of the opposition.
In 1990, Duke did lose 83-72 (a very similar score to Thursday night) to Georgia Tech in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. Afterwards, Phil Henderson did famously call his young teammates (which included sophomore Christian Laettner and freshman Bobby Hurley), "a bunch of babies."
But that Georgia Tech team would win the ACC title the next afternoon and would itself make a run to the Final Four. The Jackets played eventual champion UNLV much tougher in the national semifinals than Duke did in the finals. That was a GREAT Georgia Tech team and even though Duke did not play well in the loss, it was no shame to lose to Kenny Anderson-Dennis-Scott-Brian Oliver and company.
One year later, Duke suffered an embarrassing 96-74 loss to UNC in the ACC championship game. But only the margin was embarrassing - that was a great UNC team that would also reach the Final Four.
The 91-80 loss to Maryland in the last week of the 2001 regular season was not especially embarrassing, but it was scary because the reason for the loss was the broken foot suffered in the second half by starting center Carlos Boozer (Duke was leading when he went out). Again, it was a great Maryland team - one that would eventually lose to Duke in the Final Four.
The 2010 Maryland team did not make it to the Final Four - although they may have made it except for a fluke play in the final seconds of their NCAA loss to Michigan State (which did make the Final Four). Still, that was a very good team (No. 22 in the AP poll) that shared the ACC regular season title with the Blue Devils. That 79-72 loss in College Park was hardly a bad loss.
But make no mistake about it - Duke's loss to Wake Forest was a bad loss. A very bad loss.
This Wake Forest team is not going to play in the Final Four. It's not going to play in the NCAA Tournament. It's probably not even going to play in the NIT. The Deacs are not a top 100 team in either the KenPom ratings or the RPI. Coincidentally, they climbed to 112 in both metrics with the Duke win. Pomeroy had them at 139 when they lost - at home-to Boston College last weekend.
You have to look long and hard to find a Duke loss this bad this late in the season. And don't bring up Lehigh in 2012 - the Mountain Hawks were a 26-win team and finished in the top 100 of the RPI.
Maryland last year was a 25-win team. Virginia Tech in 2011 was an NCAA bubble team that finished fourth in the ACC and won 22 games.
I guess the 2007 loss to N.C. State in Tampa in the opening round of the ACC Tournament might compare. The Pack was just 5-11 in the ACC that season. But I would point out that Duke (playing without Gerald Henderson) played a much more competitive game, losing in overtime. I would also point out that team was in a late-season tailspin and would lose to VCU in the NCAA opener.
So if you want to compare the Wake loss to that one, go ahead. I'm hoping the comparison doesn't work.
I guess the real question would be if there was ever a successful Duke team that suffered this bad a loss this late? We've already noted that several very successful teams lost late, but always to good teams. But I can't find a Duke Final Four team that had a late loss comparable to the defeat in Winston-Salem.
TURNING IT AROUND
I have no idea why Duke collapsed at Wake Forest. I have no idea why it happened at Notre Dame, where Duke appeared to be en route to a solid victory before the offense shut down. After another collapse late in the loss at North Carolina, Krzyzewski suggested that his team didn't have "it" - but then he couldn't define "it".
I have no idea why the team's 3-point shooting - so much a strength for the first two thirds of the season - has suddenly slumped. Before the Maryland game on Feb. 15, Duke was hitting 43 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. In the six games since, Duke is under 30 percent (and that includes a 10-of-18 night at Georgia Tech … other than that one exception, it's barely 25 percent).
The Duke team that lost at Wake Forest looked very much like the Duke team that lost to Notre Dame and Clemson during the first week of January.
Back then, I wrote about Krzyzewski's amazing ability to tweak his team to get the best from it. I cited the revamp in 2001 after Boozer's injury, the season-saving move of Jon Scheyer to the point in 2009, the installation of Brian Zoubek as the starting center late in the 2010 season.
All of those moves were totally unexpected … and all paid big dividends.
Krzyzewski's response to the team's January slump this season was equally unexpected … and equally brilliant.
Actually, Krzyzewski has tweaked this team twice.
The first time was in December, when Duke's defense collapsed in narrow victories over East Carolina and Vermont. His response was to insert seniors Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston into the starting lineup. Neither was among Duke's top five talents, but both brought at understanding of how Coach K wants to play team defense. The result as an immediate improvement at the defensive end, including victories over Michigan and Alabama and a narrow (and fairly low-scoring) loss to Arizona.
On the whole, the Duke defense has been steadily improving since that point, despite the return of Hairston to the bench. In fact, after Duke's offense collapsed at Notre Dame, Krzyzewski reverted to his expected starting lineup - with sophs Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson replacing Hairston and Thornton.
Those two - along with Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook - were in the starting lineup when Duke again collapsed at Clemson.
That's when I wrote the article wondering what unexpected move Krzyzewski would make to try and save the season.
As we all saw, he did surprise us with his introduction of platooning in the home win over Virginia. What was really surprising was how he divided the two platoons - with freshman guard Matt Jones replacing Sulaimon on the first team, allowing Sulaimon and senior Andre Dawkins to provide the offensive punch for the second unit.
Krzyzewski said at the time that he was convinced that fatigue had a lot to do with his team's late slumps. The platooning allowed him to keep his players fresh.
The two-platoon system lasted through a rout of N.C. State in Cameron and to lesser degrees in surprisingly easy wins over Miami and Florida State. By the time Duke went to Pittsburgh for an easy win over the No. 18 Panthers, Sulaimon was back in the standing lineup and the second-platoon was relegated to only a rare appearance.
Is it time to bring the two-platoon system back?
I'm not sure fatigue is an issue any more - Duke doesn't have a single player among the ACC's top 10 in minutes played (either overall or in conference play). But the platoon system did seem to bring a lot of energy to the team and they could use that now.
I know that many Duke fans would like to see sophomore Marshall Plumlee start at center - a la Zoubek in 2010? His minutes have been going up and he's becoming a significant contributor, but Krzyzewski did note recently that he doesn't yet have the stamina to go much more than the 15-18 minutes a game that he's now getting.
Or will Krzyzewski come up with a new tweak - something us mortals can't predict?
You have to put your faith in his ability to find the right answers. He's not perfect - he never found an answer to Ryan Kelly's injury in 2012, for instance. But as long as his players are healthy - and, most importantly, HE is healthy -- you have to face the postseason with some optimism, despite the utterly discouraging night in Winston-Salem.
PICKING THE ALL STARS
Media members have to vote by Sunday night on the All-ACC teams and for the second year in a row, the choice for player of the year would seem to be between a spectacular player on a mediocre team and the best player (with modest stats) on a very balanced championship team.
Before last season, just one player from a sub-.500 team had ever won ACC player of the year honors - Len Bias in 1986. And even his 6-8 ACC team earned an NCAA bid as a No. 5 seed (demonstrating just how strong the ACC was in that era).
Last year, Erick Green beat out Miami's Shane Larkin by a 38-23 vote for player of the year.
Green played for the ACC's last-place team - but he posted some spectacular stats. He averaged 25.0 points a game - best in the nation (and the first ACC player since Grady Wallace in 1957 to lead the nation). He upped that to 26.0 in ACC play, while shooting a solid 47.5 percent from the floor (and a great 43.8 from 3-point range in ACC play). He also led his team in assists (6th best in the ACC) and steals (8th in the ACC).
Larkin played for the ACC champs - both regular season and tournament. He was clearly the sparkplug of a balanced Miami team, but his stats were modest - 14.5 a game (just 13.8 in ACC play). He did lead the league in steals and was fourth in the ACC in assists.
One oddity in the vote. For the first time, the ACC coaches picked their own All-ACC team and player of the year. Green and Duke's Mason Plumlee were unanimous first-team picks - Larkin missed by one vote (meaning one coach picked him second team). Yet, in the POY voting Larkin beat out Green by a 6-3 vote.
The voters are facing a similar decision this season.
N.C. State's T.J. Warren has the stats. But Virginia is going to win the ACC regular season race by at least two games and probably three games. Don't the Cavs deserve the player of the year?
Virginia's best candidate is guard Malcolm Brogdon. He leads Virginia with a modest 12.6 points a game. That doesn't even crack the ACC's top 20 scoring list. He's also shooting a so-so 43 percent from the field. Brogdon is the best rebounding guard in the ACC (second on the Cavs with 5.6 rebounds a game). He's second on the team with 2.5 assists per game.
In contrast, Warren leads the ACC with 24.2 points a game (24.5 in ACC play). He also leads the league in field goal percentage at 52.8 and he's third in the ACC in steals. He has eight 30-point games (nobody else has more than two) and the ACC's only 40-point game.
But that's for a team that has to beat Boston College Sunday to finish .500 in the league.
There are other candidates. UNC wouldn't be in first division without sophomore guard Marcus Paige (sixth in the league in scoring; tied for fourth in assists). C.J. Fair of Syracuse - the preseason pick for the award - has done well (seventh in the league in scoring). And Duke's Jabari Parker leads the league in rebounding and is second in scoring He has four more double-doubles than anyone else in the ACC (and four more in ACC play only).
There is no rule that says we have to pick a player of the year off the regular season champ. In the first 60 years of the league, the regular season champion (or a team tied for first) has produced the POY 32 times - just over half.
Right now, I'm probably going to vote for Warren unless something remarkable happens this weekend.
Picking the ACC first team is also going to be tough. Actually, my ballot choices appear to be easy - Warren, Parker, Fair and Paige, plus Clemson's K.J. McDaniels, who is leading his team in scoring, rebounding, 3-point shooting, blocked shots and steals. The only previous ACC player to do that was Wake Forest's Josh Howard in 2003 and he won the POY award. McDaniels ranks high in the ACC rankings in most of those categories - he's going to become the shortest player in ACC history to lead in blocked shots, he's fifth in scoring and he's seventh in rebounding.
McDaniel has also led the most overachieving team in the ACC - a team we picked 14th is currently battling for fifth place.
There's only one problem with that first team - it doesn't include a single player from first-place Virginia.
That's almost unprecedented. In the 60-year history of the first team, just two regular season champions were shut out of the first team. One was Virginia in 1994, when four teams tied for first place. The other three first-place finishers -- UNC (Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace), Maryland (Joe Smith) and Wake Forest (Tim Duncan and Randolph Childress) -- filled up the first team. Virginia's best player - Harold Deane -- barely made the second team as the ninth man.
The other example is even more surprising. In 2011, UNC beat Duke in the regular season finale to edge the Blue Devils for the regular season title. But while Duke had two first-team All-ACC picks (Nolan Smith and Kyle Singer), UNC had none. Three Tar Heels (Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes) led the second team; Kendall Marshall was the last guy picked to the third team.
If I do end up leaving Brogdon off the first team (I'm still wrestling with that one), I'll have two Cavs -- Brogdon and Joe Harris - on the second team, along with Duke's Rodney Hood, Tyler Ennis of Syracuse and Pitt's Lamar Patterson.
I haven't had time to make sense of the third team - Olivier Hanlan, Jermai Grant, Ian Miller and Okaro White, Danny Miller, Dez Wells, Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton, James Michael McAdoo, Rion Brown and Talib Zanna are all players I'll look at closely.
The first four spots on my rookie team are easy - Parker, Ennis, London Perrantes of Virginia and Devin Wilson of Virginia Tech. The last spot probably goes to UNC's Kennedy Meeks, but there are a few guys I have to look at closer.
Parker - who is the No. 2 most efficient offensive player in the country according to Pomeroy - gets rookie of the year over Ennis.
Bennett, after taking his program to the NIT last year to ACC regular season champion, gets coach of the year - although Clemson's Brad Brownell would be a deserving pick.
I'm still researching defensive player of the year and the All-Defensive team. I hope I can get some good feedback on that score from some pro scouts I expect to see at Cameron Saturday.