By Al Featherston
Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski understands that even though the record book shows the Blue Devils with an active 25-game winning streak, that number is an illusion.
The first 10 wins in the streak came late last year, when the Devils had players such as Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas in the lineup. They are no longer around.
And the middle eight games came early this season when freshman point guard Kyrie Irving was running the show. The brilliant playmaker is no longer available, sidelined with a sore toe.
What does that leave?
"We've only played seven games with the team we have," Krzyzewski noted after Sunday night's hard-fought victory over Maryland. "We're not this great basketball team. We're a good basketball team that has to gain experience, gain maturity. Even though we've won all of our games, in eight of them we were probably the best team in the country. The last seven, we're trying to find out who we are as a team."
There's another interesting aspect of Duke's 25 straight wins: Technically, just one of those 25 victories was a road game - and even that Dec. 29 victory over UNC Greensboro came in a Greensboro Coliseum that was packed with a majority of Blue Devil fans.
Oh, the streak does include some hostile venues - the NCAA wins over Baylor in Houston and Butler in Indianapolis were far from neutral courts. And the Kansas City crowd in the Sprint Center for the finals of the CBE Classic this November was decidedly in favor of nearby Kansas State.
Mike Krzyzewski's reluctance to schedule non-conference road games seems to cause the Duke-haters out there a lot of anguish. It's kind of fun to see them gnash their teeth and complain about it every year. You can find plenty of outrage on the UNC and Kentucky message boards (where they conveniently ignore that this year at least the Tar Heels and Wildcats play exactly as many road non-conference games as Duke - two each).
Coach K used to play a lot of road games out of the league. His first Duke team played at Vanderbilt, South Florida and Rutgers. His 1988 team played at Arizona and Kansas when both were Final Four teams. His 1990 team played at Northwestern, Michigan, Stetson, William & Mary and opened Davidson's new on-campus gym. His 1992 national champs played at Michigan (with the Fab Five), at LSU (with Shaquille O'Neal), at UCLA (with Don MacLean, Tracy Murray and Ed O'Bannion), at Canisius and at Boston University.
But Krzyzewski's scheduling philosophy has evolved. Even though he continues to schedule strong non-conference opponents (Duke's strength of schedule is top 10 nationally almost every year), he now prefers to play them on neutral - or semi-neutral - courts. There are several reasons:
-- It's better preparation for the NCAA Tournament, which is never played on home courts any more (not since 1988), but is often played in venues where the crowd is heavily biased towards one team or another (as last year's Duke-Baylor and Duke-Butler crowds were). Coach K can better simulate that environment with situations like this year's Duke-Kansas State game in the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Last year's team was prepared for its Baylor/Butler experience after playing Iowa State in the United Center and UConn in Madison Square Garden.
-- It gives more Duke fans a chance to see the team in person. Face it, Duke has a huge fan base and a small arena. When the Devils play road games, more Duke fans can attend if the venue is a large municipal arena and not a small, on-campus facility. If the Devils had played Oregon at the 9,000-seat McArthur Court in Eugene, only a few hundred Duke fans would have been able to attend. But by playing the Ducks in the Rose Garden in Portland, almost 13,000 West Coast fans - many of them in Duke blue -- got a chance to see the Devils in person. That's the rationale behind Duke's annual holiday game either at Madison Square Garden or in the Meadowlands. It's a chance for the school's legion of fans in the Northeast to get to a game.
-- Duke is big-time and big money. Back in K's formative years, his team routinely played on-campus road games at places such out-of-the-way as Stetson, William & Mary, Harvard, even Davidson and The Citadel. But as the Blue Devils emerged as a perennial national power, the money to be made in a big arena is just too good to pass up - not just for Duke, but the opponent. That's why games at Temple have been played in the Spectrum or the United Bank Center (or whatever the new Philadelphia arena is called these days). That's why most Duke-Davidson games are played in the Charlotte Coliseum and not on-campus.
-- Coach K has always believed that the eight true road games his team plays every year in the ACC are plenty to toughen his team for postseason.
Other programs (and coaches) are envious that they don't have the clout to do the same. Actually, some of them do. Kentucky has routinely played non-conference games in Louisville over the years. Kansas frequently schedules games in Kansas City. UNC has used Greensboro and Charlotte as homes-away-from-home. Just two years ago, UNC and Michigan State moved their ACC/Big Ten Challenge game to Ford Field in Detroit and the same two schools are planning to play a future game on an aircraft carrier (I hope it's calm and not raining that day!).
Syracuse almost never plays a true road game out of conference and with a huge on-campus facility, plays more home games than almost anybody.
Where's the problem?
The only potential negative to the neutral court strategy - aside from the complaints of jealous rivals - is the suggestion that avoiding tough non-conference road games robs the team of the kind of potential tests that can toughen it up for the conference road games that can't be avoided.
The record doesn't seem to support that argument. Duke is 14-3 in ACC road openers since Coach K got his program back on track in 1997 - which is also about the time he began substituting neutral sites for true road games in non-conference play. Just to check that, Duke was 9-2 in ACC road openers between 1984 and 1994 - back when Duke was playing more and tougher non-conference road games than most teams.
That's not much of a difference.
But Duke does go on the road within the ACC, starting tonight, when the Blue Devils travel to Tallahassee to visit Florida State.
Duke will learn a lot about itself in the next three weeks. Five of the next seven Blue Devil games are on the road - six in the ACC and one at St. John's. If Krzyzewski's team survives that stretch with the winning streak intact, then it might mean something.
"Playing on the road - it's a huge difference," Nolan Smith said. "You have to be even stronger on the road. The home team can draw strength and energy from the crowd. When you are away from home, you have to bring your own energy."
Basketball places more of a premium on homecourt advantage than any other sport. We just saw the NFL playoffs open with three of four road teams winning on the first weekend. Last fall, the visiting team won all five games of the American League playoff series between the Rangers and the Rays. Stuff like that rarely happens in basketball, unless the two teams are extremely mismatched.
Home teams have won more than 63 percent of their ACC games in the 57-year history of the league. A year ago, home teams won 68.8 percent of the time.
Here's Duke's Home/Road breakdown within the ACC over the last 14 years:
A few observations:
-- Duke has done an extraordinary job of protecting its homecourt, winning 88.4 percent of its ACC games in Cameron since Coach K re-established his program in 1997. The 4-4 record in 2007 is the one blemish. That's the only year in that span that Duke has lost more than once at home, except for 2001, when the Blue Devils lost to UNC and Maryland in a year when the Devils shared the ACC regular season title and won both the ACC and national championships in March.
-- Surprisingly, Duke has been almost as good in ACC play on neutral courts in Greensboro, Charlotte, Washington and Tampa as the Devils have been in Cameron - an extraordinary 86.5 percent winning percentage. No explanation â¦ just admiration.
-- However, Duke's 70.5 winning percentage in ACC road games over this span is truly remarkable. That includes the greatest ACC road winning streak in league history - between a midseason loss at North Carolina in 1998 and a Feb. 14 loss at Virginia in 2001, Duke won an amazing 24 straight ACC road games. But what might be more impressive is the team's consistency on the road - just one losing road record in 14 years, plus three break-even marks. That's 10 seasons since 1997 with a winning ACC road record.
Keep in mind that Duke has accomplished that feat under extraordinarily difficult circumstances - tougher circumstances than almost anybody else in the ACC has to deal with. Over the years, only UNC has faced the same road obstacles as Duke.
Permit me a digression.
Back in 1986, I was covering ACC basketball for the Durham Sun and I traveled with both Duke and UNC (and sometimes N.C. State). That was the year when Duke and UNC were unbeaten when they met to open the Dean Dome in January. The No. 1 ranked Tar Heels won that historic game, then the next day, flew to Milwaukee and edged a very good Marquette team.
North Carolina was clearly the ACC's premier program at that moment (K was just getting his program off the ground) and as such, they were the team that opponents targeted.
That was evident to me when unbeaten UNC traveled to Virginia on Jan. 30 and faced the Cavaliers in dark, dingy University Hall. The atmosphere that night was unbelievable and the amped up crowd helped spur the Cavaliers to an 86-73 upset of the Tar Heels.
Now, here's the thing. Duke traveled to Charlottesville a week later. Once again, University Hall was sold out, but I can tell you that the atmosphere was not nearly so electric as it had been when UNC came to town. The Blue Devils, soon to take over the No. 1 spot in the polls, earned their 77-65 victory, but they did not have to face anything like the atmosphere that helped derail the Tar Heels.
By the late 1980s, K had established his program on a level with UNC. But the first time I saw a real difference in reception was in 1993. Duke was coming off two straight national titles and had, without a doubt, temporarily replaced UNC as the ACC's premier program â¦ and target. Traveling around the league that year with both teams, it was amazing to see the different in atmosphere when Duke visited versus when UNC came to town. Duke lost one-point games at Florida State and Georgia Tech, plus a three-point game at Virginia â¦ and in every case, UNC visited those same schools three days after Duke and benefited from a far less energetic crowd (just as Duke benefited in 1986 from a similar phenomena).
In the years since, I think it's fluctuated between the two rivals as the team that ACC opponents want to beat most. However, it's clear that it's ALWAYS Duke and UNC. Miami and Florida State usual play in front of a half-empty arena, except when the Blue Devils or Tar Heels come to town. There were 4,000 empty seats in Raleigh when N.C. State played Wake Forest in the ACC opener last Saturday. How many do you think there will be when Duke visits on Jan. 19?
There was an announced crowd of 7,015 at the Donald L. Tucker Center in Tallahassee (the biggest dump to host an ACC team) when the Seminoles faced Clemson back in December. You can bet that all 12,000-plus seats will be filled for Duke's visit tonight and that the Blue Devils will face a tougher crowd and more electric atmosphere than anybody else in the ACC will experience in the Tucker Center this season (including, this year at least, UNC).
The game has special importance for an FSU team that has to be concerned about its chances of qualifying for the NCAA field. The 'Noles missed the chance to pick up significant non-conference wins at home against Florida and/or Ohio State. They lost to Butler on a neutral court. The do have a fairly impressive neutral court victory over Baylor, but to offset that is an embarrassing loss at Auburn - the SEC's version of Wake Forest (like the Deacs, Auburn has lost at home to Presbyterian).
The weaker-than-normal ACC won't offer Leonard Hamilton's team many chances for a significant win. No. 1 Duke is just about it - if the 'Noles can upset the Devils that would be the kind of win that could make the difference between the NCAA and the NIT.
So you can be sure that Duke will get FSU's best shot.
Nine of the 16 games Duke has left in the regular season are on the road. That includes a Jan. 30 date with St. John's in Madison Square Garden.
Technically, that counts as a home game for the Johnnies. Yes, they do have a small, on-campus facility (Carnesecca Arena), but they play the majority of their home games in the Garden and will control the seating and the ticket distribution. But because there will be room for plenty of Duke fans in the arena, we'll throw that one out as we rate Duke's chances to lose in the eight remaining road games - all in the ACC.
Doing it Letterman style, I'm guessing Duke's toughest road games will be:
(8) -- at Wake Forest on Jan. 22. Frankly, I think the Devils have a better chance of losing to UNC or N.C. State at home to losing to the pathetic Deacons, even in Lawrence Joel. It can be a tough place to play, but this Wake team just doesn't appear to have the firepower.
(7) -- at Virginia on Feb. 13. Tony Bennett is doing a great job laying the foundation for what's going to be a successful program. The way the team played in victories over Minnesota and at Virginia Tech would serve as a warning not to take this trip for granted. But the season-ending injury that sidelined senior power forward Mike Scott is just too much for the Cavs to overcome. This is a game that Duke should win.
(6) - at Florida State tonight. This is where it starts to get interesting. The Seminoles play good enough defense to beat anybody, especially on one of those rare nights when their shots are falling. Unfortunately for Leonard Hamilton's team, injuries have sidelined starting center Xavier Gibson and freshman Ian Miller, who is the team's best shooter. Unless the Noles have an uncharacteristically hot night, Duke should emerge with a victory.
(5) - at Miami on Feb. 13. The BankUnited Center has been a curiously tough place for Duke in recent years. Last year's team trailed at the half before winning by seven and the 2008 team lost in by one in Miami. The 'Canes have also played Duke tough away from home in the last three seasons, taking the Devils to overtime in Cameron in 2009 and making it a three-point game in last year's ACC Tournament. I also think they gain a slight advantage from having played Duke already - they lost the Jan. 2 game in Cameron in the first six minutes, but after taking that early blow, they played Duke even the rest of the way.
(4) at N.C. State on Jan. 19. We all remember what happened when Duke went to Raleigh last year - the Pack dominated in an 88-74 victory. And the time before that, it took a miraculous rally to pull off a one-point victory. The Pack struggled in December with Tracy Smith on the sidelines, but they haven't lost since the 2010 second-team All-ACC power forward Tracy Smith has returned to the lineup. Sidney Lowe has some seriously talented freshmen - they're just starting to figure out how to play.
(3) at Virginia Tech on Feb. 26. This could change if the Hokies suffer another significant injury, but as of the moment, Seth Greenberg's team has a formidable starting lineup and will have an unbelievable homecourt edge when ESPN's GameDay sets up for Duke's visit. Injuries have robbed the Hokies of all frontcourt depth, but the loss of senior guard Dorenzo Hudson may actually make VPI stronger - with sophomore Eric Green taking over the point, it allows Malcolm Delaney to move to his more comfortable off-guard spot. We need to see more games - Thursday's game at UNC will tell us a lot - but so far, the Hokies have played their best basketball since finally deciding that Hudson and Raines were out for the season.
(2) at Maryland on Feb. 2. No need to mention what the atmosphere in the Comcast Center will be like when the Devils visit. And after Sunday night's thriller in Cameron, you know that the Terps will approach the rematch with a lot of confidence. I know that's justified, but personally, I think it works out better for Duke that the first game was close. Too many times over the years, I've seen everything go well in the home portion of a home-and-away series, only to have the losing team rise up in the rematch. It happened with Maryland last year - an easy 21-point win in Cameron, followed by a tough loss in Comcast. I may be crazy, but I think Duke's struggles in the first game make it MORE likely that the Devils play well in the rematch.
(1) at North Carolina on Mar. 5. If there was ever a season when it would have been better to play the Tar Heels on the road first, this is it. Right now, UNC is not ready for a team of Duke's caliber. But they are the ACC's second-most talented team and by the last day of the regular season, they will be a much better team. Good enough to beat Duke? I don't know - let's see how Duke develops. And, who knows, if Kyrie Irving is going to make it back, he should be back by this one. That would change everything. Plus, it's Duke-Carolina and that makes it special. No matter what the Terps think, this is Duke's rivalry game.
So understand that while the Blue Devils face their first road test tonight, it's not the last.
And it's definitely not the toughest.
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