By AL FEATHERSTON
There is a wonderful moment in the film "Little Big Man" when Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) lays down to die. After a few moments, he gets up and asks his adopted grandson Jack Crabb (played by Dustin Hoffman) if he is dead yet. When Crabb tells him that he's still alive, the ancient medicine man shakes his head in disappointment.
"Well," he says, "Sometimes the magic works â¦ sometimes it doesn't."
I thought about that scene Friday night at the Greensboro Coliseun as Lehigh celebrated its stunning NCAA first-round victory over Duke. It was not one of Coach Mike Krzyzewski's finest moments.
"I don't like to grade losses," Krzyzewski told a reporter who asked if this might be the most painful loss of his career. "For me, the next loss is the toughest. So this is the next one.
"For me, you're on a continuum. There are four years that we ended up with a win in my 37 years. It's not like football where you have a bowl game and 35 people end up with a win."
Krzyzewski has shown Blue Devil fans a lot of magic in his three decades in Durham. His magic worked in 2001, when he rebuilt his team after an injury sidelined star Carlos Boozer in the last week of the regular season. It worked in 2010 when he took a team with a couple of marginal NBA players and won his fourth NCAA title. It's worked literally hundreds of times since Coach K inherited the Duke program in the spring of 1980.
Indeed, the sum of his career accomplishment - to transform Duke, which was previously a very nice regional program, into the single most successful basketball program in the 64-team NCAA era, ought to be magical enough for anybody. It's a better trick than David Copperfield or Doug Henning ever pulled off.
But we have to be realistic and admit that sometimes the magic doesn't work. I'm still not sure why the ultra-talented 2002 team didn't at least reach the Final Four â¦ or how the 1998 team blew an 18-point second-half lead to Kentucky in the Elite Eight. For all his magical skill, K wasn't able to overcome late season injuries in 1985, 1993 and 1996. I'm still not sure how much the 2004 team was handicapped by Chris Duhon's bruised ribs or how much it spoiled team chemistry to try and integrate Kyrie Irving back into the rotation for the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
I'm also not sure how to judge the job Krzyzewski did this season. Certainly it ended on a sour note - not just the loss to No. 15 seed Lehigh (tied for the sixth greatest upset in the 64-team NCAA era), but also a stretch run that saw Duke loses three of its final four games.
Think back a couple of weeks. On the evening of March 3, Duke was 26-4, 13-2 in the ACC and ranked No. 2 in the RPI and No. 4 in both the AP and the coaches' polls. The Devils were playing North Carolina that night for the ACC regular season championship and a probable No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Now I understand the desire to blame Krzyzewski for the failure of this team to finish the season. But at the same time, shouldn't he be given credit for getting this team to that place on March 3 when they clearly deserved a spot among the nation's elite teams?
How good a coaching job was that?
This year's Duke team was built on a shaky foundation. The team's leading scorer - and most consistent offensive player - was a freshman who had a difficult time integrating his brilliant one-on-one skills into a team concept. Three juniors who had considerable experience as role players on past Blue Devil teams all failed to achieve the consistency expected of Duke's leaders. There were nights when Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and/or Andre Dawkins looked like stars - but none of the three could sustain that level of play. Veteran post players Miles and Mason Plumlee were fairly consistent on the boards and usually (with a couple of glaring exceptions) did a good job defensively, but neither ever established a consistent offensive groove.
The team's most important defensive player - sophomore Tyler Thornton - was an offensive liability. There was nobody in the rotation able to apply ball pressure or to stop mid-sized wing players and there were times when the Plumlee brothers got overpowered in the post.
Yet â¦ with all these problems, Duke found a way to win 26 of its first 30 games against the second-toughest schedule in the nation. Nobody thought the Blue Devils were as good as their ranking - but they did beat two No. 1 seeds, a No. 2 seed, a No. 3 seed and a No. 4 seed - all away from home. Duke might struggle to hold off Wake Forest or go into overtime to beat Virginia Tech at home, but they also defeated Michigan State and Kansas on neutral courts, plus North Carolina and Florida State on the road.
Coach K must have done something right. He was like a juggler adding more and more balls into his act â¦ until it finally got to be too much for him and it all came crashing down.
"We just haven't been in sync offensively these last couple of weeks," Krzyzewski tried to explain after the Lehigh loss. "Our offense, which was a real strength of ours the last two weeks has not been very good. That's my responsibility."
Well, yes and no.
It's Coach K's responsibility because everything that happens to the Duke program is his responsibility - good or bad. It's his program. But the gradual breakdown of Duke's offense late this season was to some degree beyond his control.
Understand that Duke never had a great offensive foundation. It's not like even a year ago when Krzyzewski had Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler to build around. There was nobody like that. The strength of Duke's attack early was its versatility - and its unpredictability.
The Blue Devils had five potential offensive weapons: Seth Curry and Austin Rivers were explosive wing guards, who were able to damage opponents either with their perimeter shooting or their slashing drives. Andre Dawkins was one of the nation's most dangerous spot-up shooters. Ryan Kelly was a 6-11 "stretch four" - a versatile offensive threat able to score inside, from the 3-point line or anywhere in between. Mason Plumlee was tall, athletic post player able to provide inside scoring in bunches.
Now, that makes it sound like Duke was an offensive juggernaut - and the Devils would have been if all five of those players were playing well at the same time. The problem for Krzyzewski is that one or two or three were always missing from the machine. Dawkins was the most inconsistent - awesome one night, invisible the next - but to some degree, all five were in and out for most of the season.
Two players who were not big offensive threats also got big minutes - point guard Tyler Thornton and center Miles Plumlee. Both brought a lot of positives to the table, but neither was much of a scoring threat (although Thornton did have a knack of hitting the timely 3-pointer).
When at least three of Duke's five scorers were clicking, the Devils could afford to play two non-scorers.
Go back and look at Duke's best wins:
-- Against Michigan State, Dawkins was the bomb (26 points 6-of-10 3-pointers) and Curry was very good (20 points, 4 assists, 3 steals). Kelly was perfect 3-of-3 from the floor, 2-of-2 on 3s and 6-of-6 from the foul line. On the other hand, neither Rivers nor Mason Plumlee was much of a factor.
-- Kelly was the MVP in Hawaii, playing well against both Michigan and Kansas. Rivers bounced back and played very well, especially against Michigan. Mason Plumlee was missing against Michigan, but great - 17 and 12 - against Kansas and Thomas Robinson.
-- Rivers was the star when Duke won in Chapel Hill with 29 points, including the game-winning 3-pointer, but Curry and Kelly also made major contributions. Dawkins did hit a couple of 3s and Mason Plumlee was a force on the boards, but a minor factor offensively.
-- Dawkins and Rivers starred at Florida State. The mercurial Dawkins came off the bench to hit six 3-pointers and score a team-high 22 points. Rivers added 20. Kelly chipped in a solid 13, but neither Curry nor Mason Plumlee made much impact offensively.
We didn't know it at the time, but that was Dawkins' last successful performance of the season. And THAT was the start of Duke's demise.
Dawkins had always been an in and out player, but he finished the season in a six game slump that saw him miss 20-of-23 shots. After Florida State, he was essentially a non-factor.
That hurt, but by itself it was not fatal.
Losing Ryan Kelly in the week before the ACC Tournament added to the team's handicap. Krzyzewski talked about the importance of Kelly - of having a player that size to threaten a defense both side and on the perimeter. His absence made spacing more difficult and without Kelly or an effective Dawkins on the perimeter, it allowed opposing defenses to pack tighter against Duke's drivers and to jam up Mason Plumlee in the post.
That put a huge offensive burden on Rivers and Curry. They were almost, but not quite enough against a very good Florida State team - which was playing very well - in the ACC Tournament. They would have been enough against Lehigh, except for another unexpected setback - Seth Curry suddenly lost his game.
Maybe it was great defense by the Lehigh Mountainhawks. Maybe it was one of those one-game slumps that all of Duke's offensive "stars" were prone to this year. But for whatever reason, Curry's offense was missing in the NCAA opener. And with Kelly out and Dawkins still MIA (2-for-9, hitting his final 3 when it was too late), what did that leave?
Well, Mason Plumlee was effective inside when Duke could get him the ball. But with Lehigh unafraid of Duke's missing perimeter game, they were able to pack the lane and make it difficult to find the junior big man. Many of the team's 13 turnovers came on attempts to get the ball to Plumlee in scoring position.
The only other option was Rivers, who ended up forcing things at times just because there was no other offensive option.
In the end, it wasn't enough.
I suppose we can blame Krzyzewski for not waving a magic wand and fixing the team's offenses problems. Or we can suggest that he was at fault for not pulling another recruiting rabbit out of his hat sometime in the last two years. Maybe he should have used mind control to convince Kyrie Irving to stay at Duke another year.
I don't know what magic he could have used to save this season. Maybe he used it all up getting this team to March. I don't know.
All I know is that most years, his magic works.
This year, it didn't.
THE MISTY FUTURE
A few minutes after the Lehigh game, when reporters were waiting in the hallway outside the Duke locker room, a young writer came up to me and asked, "Do you think the game has passed Coach K by?"
I had an immediate flashback to the 1994 NBA Draft in Indianapolis. During the press dinner before the draft, a veteran writer from California asked me, "Do you think the game has passed Dean Smith by?"
Smith, of course, was coming off one of the most disappointing finishes of his career. His ACC champions had been upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by a much inferior Boston College team.
But I pointed out that UNC was one year removed from a national championship and had spent most of the 1994 season ranked No. 1. Did one bad loss suddenly make Smith a senile fool? I suggested that UNC was going to be strong again in 1995 (indeed, they returned to the Final Four).
It was a ludicrous question.
And it's ludicrous to question Coach K in the wake of the Lehigh loss.
Yes, it was a bad loss and yes, the season ended on a down note with three losses in the final four games.
But, c'mon, a little perspective here folks. Krzyzewski is just two years removed from his most recent NCAA title. A year ago, Duke completed its third straight 30-win season. The Blue Devils have been ranked in the AP top 10 for 93 straight weeks - the second longest streak in history.
And even in this "disappointing" season, Duke finished No. 8 in the final AP poll and won 27 games, which ties the school record in the years before Coach K arrived.
So let's not have any silly talk about the game passing him by â¦ let's focus on what magic he's going to use to make sure the 2012-13 season ends on a better note.
On paper, the Duke coach has a lot of work to do.
He'll return the bulk of this year's team. Miles Plumlee is the only senior, but there's a good chance Austin Rivers and maybe even Mason Plumlee will jump to the NBA.
On the other hand, Coach K will be adding three bodies, including the first two intentional redshirts of his coaching career. Marshall Plumlee, the 7-foot younger brother of Miles and Mason, and Alex Murphy, a 6-8 inside/outside forward, have had a year's experience working in the system. And recruit Rasheed Sulaimon is a highly regarded wing guard - not the explosive scorer than Rivers has been, but maybe a more complete player.
It's also possible that Krzyzewski could add another recruit or two in the next few weeks. Tony Parker, a burly post player from Atlanta, and Amile Jefferson, a slender 6-8 wing forward from Pennsylvania, would be nice addition, but neither is projected as an impact player. Duke's third recruiting target - Shabazz Mohammad, a 6-6 wing from Las Vegas, is the top-rated player in the class and would have a huge immediate impact.
I don't claim to be clued into the recruiting pipeline, but from what I hear, Duke has a good chance for Jefferson, a lesser chance for Parker and is a real long shot in the Muhammad race.
Assuming K doesn't hit the recruiting jackpot, he's going to have to rebuild around what's on hand. A year ago, we were saying that the key to the 2012 season was the ability of Curry, Kelly, Dawkins and Mason Plumlee to transform themselves from role players into stars. None were entirely successful, although it's worth noting that Kelly improved from 6.6 ppg. and 3.7 rpg. to 11.8 ppg and 5.3 rpg. and improved from a 31.9 percent 3-point shooter to 40.8 percent. Curry improved from 9.0 ppg and 2.0 apg. to 13.4 ppg. and 2.6 apg.
Can they make a similar improvement as seniors?
The biggest enigma is Dawkins. Can K find the key to unlock the Andre Dawkins that played so well against Michigan State and at Florida State? He doesn't have to be that great every night, but if he could find a middle ground between great and useless, he would be a far more valuable player.
Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston will be juniors and may be the most predictable players on the roster. That's because they were Duke's two most consistent players this season. Too bad they were both limited physically - in terms of effort and concentration, they approached their potential more than anybody else on the team. I fully expect Thornton to be one of the - if not THE - captain of next year's team.
The biggest jump should come from the freshmen - not just Murphy and Marshall Plumlee, but also from point Quinn Cook, who had some promising moments (he was ACC rookie of the week in back-to-back weeks) and forward Michael Gbinije, who was practically buried on the bench as the season wore on. Well, so was Kelly as a freshman in 2010 and he emerged as a valuable player as a sophomore in 2011.
There's a nice core, but like this year, Krzyzewski is going to face a difficult job assembling the jig-saw puzzle that will be next year's team.
On paper, it doesn't look like a national championship contender (unless Muhammad comes aboard or both Rivers and Mason Plumlee return). But there is experience. There are a lot of potential weapons available.
And Duke will have Krzyzewski putting the puzzle together.
His magic may not always work, but over the years, it has dazzled us far more often than it has fizzled.
Duke Basketball Blue Book
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