Duke's struggles continued at Georgia Tech, with the Devils having 17
turnovers and only shooting 4-20 from three point range. Yet with 5:59
left in the game, Duke had clawed their way back to within two points.
Of course, after that, Tech fought back and took Duke out with a couple of
Although there were a lot of negatives in this game, there were some positives too. The biggest point, and one which a lot of people will overlook, is that Duke is not all that far away. They started the game very well, and though turnovers again killed them, they could have won this game had they made better decisions at the end. And Duke forced 28 turnovers from Tech, which is extremely impressive. Basically, Duke made the strategic decision to defend from the inside out, and Tech got hot from the perimeter, shooting 7-12, for a 21 point cushion.
But even with that, Duke was in a good position before they let Tech off the hook.
One of Coach K's comments at the end of the game was that "[j]ust because you're at Duke doesn't mean you inherit winning. You inherit money -- you don't inherit knowing how to win. We've got to learn how to do that."
It's a comment a lot of Duke fans should take to heart. We've become used to things being easy, and watching as Duke teams roll over the opposition. ESPN flashed a fairly amazing stat on the screen during the game: Duke's winning percentage on the road since1998 is higher than every other ACC teams home record during the same stretch other than Maryland.
He also said that "[i]t's a different team. We have a real young team. We've got eight scholarship guys that are healthy right now and four of them are freshmen. We've got to find a way to win with that combination, and that's what my job is supposed to be, so that's what I'm going to do."
A lot of people are focusing on the play of Greg Paulus, which is understandable to an extent. He's not playing very well, and he's admitted as much. But he's also dealt with a lot of setbacks this season. As Coach K said after the game, "[h]e's had a very interrupted year. He started out breaking his foot in the second practice and is out five weeks. And then he comes back and gets [mononucleosis], or close to mono, and he got over that. Then he came back after Christmas and almost breaks the middle finger on his left hand and is out for four days. That has an affect. It's no excuse, because other guys get hurt. But certainly, you'd like the continuity of play...But we'll stick with him. We've got confidence in him, as we do all of our kids."
We watched him closely when he left the game, to see what his demeanor would be like, because this stretch of the season is bound to be difficult for him. Yet when Wojo talked to him, there was no looking away. There was intense eye contact and an eagerness.
When Coach K talked to him, the body language was affirming and supportive. And he was clearly engaged when he was out of the game, talking to his teammates, offering support and being assertive.
There were reasons why Duke recruited him, and they center around his leadership abilities and his willingness to play with abandon. He hasn't done that as much as everyone might like, but we've seen flashes. He's just had a tough stretch. Here's hoping Duke fans don't give up on the kid, because he's certainly not giving up on himself, or on Duke.
A day or so ago, we read a Krzyzewski comment where he said, and we paraphrase, that Duke teaches three systems: offense, defense, and communication.
Communication is a huge part of Duke's success over the years, and a little understood one. This team, with so many young players, clearly hasn't mastered it yet, something perhaps most clearly illustrated in the last two games between Paulus and Josh McRoberts: at the end of the Virginia Tech game, McRoberts threw a pass off Paulus's face; in the Georgia Tech game, he threw a pass to where he expected Paulus to be. Paulus realized what had gone wrong, but he was too late, and Jarvis Crittenton snatched the ball up.
Defensively, for the most part, Duke seems to get it, although after their lockdown defense late in the second half to cut the lead to two, they let Tech off the hook. But for the most part this season, they seem to communicate admirably on defense.
It's on offense where the problem is most keen, and it's epitomized by those two plays.
Is it all an issue of the point, as Mark Schlabach suggests? It's an easy argument, but Duke has had teams in the past with no true point guard. Krzyzewski has used a system he calls "conveyance," which basically means instead of one guy being trusted with ballhandling, the ball gets passed downcourt instead of dribbled.
Think that'd work right now? No. McRoberts could handle it, and Scheyer, and DeMarcus Nelson, but Lance Thomas, Gerald Henderson, Brian Zoubek, and Marty Pocius couldn't.
Paulus is struggling, but fundamentally, he's a sound ballhandler and a superior passer, although that's not the case at the moment. He's obviously and painfully struggling, but if you bench him and go to conveyance, it's not like the turnovers are going to stop and the team will figure out how to space itself and how to move the ball around and to use passing to spin the defenses around.
Paulus is a handy solution to some of the problems, and at times an even more handy scapegoat. But he can only be responsible for so much.
What it comes down to is exactly what Coach K said: it's a young team and they're struggling to figure out how to win. It's not a lack of talent or heart or anything like that. It's a talented team. But they are young and they haven't entirely figured out how to win, much less how to placate our expectations.
But given Coach K's ability to teach, and his insistence on honesty and accountability, we'd think this team, like most of his teams, will find their way. It's just taking longer than Duke fans are used to, and unfortunately, we're spoiled by Duke's success.
He's entirely right in saying that it isn't inherited, although some of us have frankly begun to act like UNC fans at the height of their arrogance under Dean Smith, when smug bumper stickers suggested God was complicit in UNC's success. Apparently, he took a vacation when Matt Doherty showed up.
Well, God is no more on Duke's side now than he was on UNC's then, nor do we as Duke fans have an entitlement to winning, just as they didn't (as Doherty so rudely reminded them).
As fans, we need to get back to basics and support our team, and rediscover what it's like when a young team starts to get it. Watching the basics of the program fall into place was a great pleasure in 1984. Watching it recover in 1996 was equally rewarding. And watching this young core learn and grow, while painful at times, is also going to be rewarding. So let's accept them for where they are, and let's enjoy the growth - and participate in it.