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St. John's Stuns Devils

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If there's been a more disappointing Duke loss in recent years than the one to St.
John's in the Garden Sunday, we can't think of it. In fact, the games it most brings
to mind are the St. John's/Ohio State disaster in 1979, when Duke's season totally
unraveled. We talked about that earlier this year, in a different context.
With the exception of the 8-points-in-sixteen-seconds game, it was probably the
most traumatic basketball event in Duke history. Are we then worried that something
really bad will come of this? Not in the slightest.

After very real and significant improvement in recent weeks, Duke found themselves in a
bad situation with St. John's, with a lead and unable to make smart decisions with the
ball. In the case of Chris Duhon, who had six turnovers and made some key errors,
this is hard to understand. In the cases of Daniel Ewing and JJ Redick, well, they
are young players with a lot to learn still. In Ewing's case, he made some critical
mistakes down the stretch that cost the team. In Redick's case, he could have held
off on a late 3 attempt. On the other hand if he had hit it, things would be
different, which might or might not be a good thing: usually a win is the best thing, but
if you win and keep doing stupid things, then the win doesn't help you to avoid repeating
the same errors.

St. John's has turned out, by the way, to be a great program for Duke to schedule late.
First, they are immensely capable of surprising Duke, and second, it can be a
frantic, out of control, pressing game, and that's good preparation for the tournament.

In a broad sense, the temptation is to toss this one aside and keep moving ahead.
In a different sense, though, having your weaknesses exposed before the tournament
is really a great idea, which is why these guys keep showing up on the schedule.

It seems fairly obvious that the points of emphasis this week will revolve around
taking care of the ball, scoring out of the delay offense, and going in for the kill.

We're not going to talk a whole lot about the specifics of the game, aside from the
end, but what we would like to talk about is adversity and what the best ways to deal with
that are. One of the reasons we like Duke basketball so much is that like some other
great coaches, like Vince Lombardi and John Wooden, Coach K teaches some pretty sound
ideas that have a lot of truck outside the sports world. We're hardly insiders, but we pay
close attention, and if you wanted to sum up what makes Duke Duke, you could probably do
it with these principles:

  • never be afraid to fail
  • be honest
  • be part of something bigger than yourself
  • probably what you think is working your hardest is not really working your hardest

We saw the faces of the Duke kids. They were stunned, hurt, and amazed at what
had happened.

We remember what Dick Vitale said a few years ago after a poor performance by Duke:
Coach K told them that it was unacceptable. We don't know if that's what he
said after this game, but we're pretty sure that he's already figured out how to show what
went wrong and explain how to avoid it next time. Being a very young team, they may
or may not listen, but the message will probably be there. Failure is a very useful tool
as lon as you approach it correctly.

From here, the season is down to a maximum 11 games. Only four are guaranteed -
FSU, UNC, first game in the ACC, and first game in the NCAA. Duke is a team which
has clearly improved, this game aside, but which still has some issues to deal with.
Nonetheless, it's a measure of where Duke stands that a 20-5 record is somehow less
than desirable to some people. Tell it to Matt Doherty.

After losing three players early to the NBA, and Shane Battier the year before,
Duke has been through a transition, to say the least. In spite of that, the team is
still a major threat. After losses this year, we've gotten the impressions from
readers that losing is just unacceptable. That mentality ignores a number of
realities, not least of which is the amazing work that goes into a program with this sort
of success. It's easy to become spoiled and just insist that, well, this set of
young men can do this because the previous sets of young men all managed it, don't you
know, and, well, they wear these special shirts.

The reality is that Duke's team is quite young, and will make mistakes even as they
show signs of growth. Do we wish they were as tough-minded as say the 2001 team?
Sure. Disappointed? Yep. Angry? No. Ashamed? Absolutely not. Disgusted?
Not a chance.

We greatly admire the qualities that Duke seeks to inculcate in their players. We
also have a lot of faith in the young talent that's on this team. Shelden Williams
and JJ Redick have largely established themselves, and Shavlik Randolph, Sean Dockery, and
Lee Melchionni have all shown enormous talent at different times in the season.
The ride is more than worth it.

Sure, this was a disappointment, but life is full of them. There's no guarantee that
Duke will be good forever, or that this young group won't struggle and end the season
fairly quickly. But there is a lot to admire, and many reasons to be proud to be a
Duke fan. We suggest that you take Coach K's advice and be proud and put on a
Duke shirt or hat or whatever tomorrow, and remember what it stands for. Because in
a time when a lot of things stand for nothing, that does stand for something, and there's
far, far more to be proud of than to be unhappy about.