What is wrong with the Duke basketball team?
I hope you didn't click on this story hoping to get an answer because, frankly, I don't have a clue.
It's not like the 2014 Blue Devils lack talented players. Jabari Parker is as gifted a freshman as the program has ever seen. Rodney Hood is everything he was touted to be during his year off after transferring from Mississippi State. Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon are the same backcourt that helped Duke to 30 wins and an NCAA Elite Eight appearance last season. Amile Jefferson has valuable skills and Tyler Thornton has been a key player in some awfully big wins for Duke over the last four seasons.
True, there's no real big man - no dominant rebounder or hulking post defensive presence. But plenty of Mike Krzyzewski's best teams have prospered despite that handicap.
What's most baffling is HOW Duke is losing games. It's not like the Devils are unable to compete … Duke has led every loss at the half. A week ago at Notre Dame, Duke was up 10 with 11 minutes to go. Duke led Clemson by four with 11 minutes to go.
In both cases - as happened down the stretch against Kansas and Arizona - the Blue Devils collapsed in the final minutes. Defensively AND offensively.
Right now, this is a dysfunctional team.
The talented pieces don't fit together to form a formidable whole. There's not a defensive stopper. There's not a consistent go-to guy on offense. And most of all, there is no consistency on the boards.
If there's one common denominator in Duke's four losses, it's the rebounding numbers. The Blue Devils have outrebounded their opponents in 11 of 12 wins. Davidson managed four more rebounds than Duke in an easy opening night win.
But look at the four losses - Kansas was plus-15 on the boards; Arizona was plus-eight; Notre Dame was plus-nine; Clemson was plus-18. Those are significant differences.
Is there an answer to that problem? Is there an answer to the team's inability to stop penetration? Is there an answer to the team's offensive consistency?
Well, if you read the message boards, the answers are simple: Marshall Plumlee should play more … much more. Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston should place less ... much less. Coach K should give up his pressure man-to-man defense and go to a zone or a pack-line defense.
Did I miss anything?
All I can say is that - as I wrote a little over a week ago - Krzyzewski has a pretty good track record when it comes to finding the key for his teams when they are struggling. And his answers are usually not we expect. I have no suggestions to make at this point, except to the fans - don't panic. It's too early for that.
There other thing I pointed out last week was how quickly things can change in college basketball for the good and the bad. Almost as soon as I wrote that, we got confirmation during the first week of ACC play.
Take the Virginia game at Florida State. Going into that contest, FSU was one of the hottest teams in the ACC, riding a four-game winning streak that included a 44-point rout of a decent Charlotte team and a neutral court upset of No. 22 UMass. On the other hand, Virginia was struggling, coming off three losses in five games, a streak that concluded with a 35-point loss to a so-so Tennessee team.
So, naturally, Virginia went to Tallahassee and dominated the 'Noles in a 62-50 victory.
We've also seen Notre Dame follow its excellent victory over Duke with a homecourt loss to N.C. State … and the Pack then returned home to get hammered by Pitt and Virginia. We've seen Clemson sandwich a good road win at Boston College and the Duke win Saturday around a horrendous 15-point home loss to FSU.
Things change … and often change quickly.
Duke fans can only hope the next change is in their favor.
DEFENSE … DEFENSE
The foundation of Mike Krzyzewski's program has been tough, aggressive man-to-man defense.
That doesn't mean he plays the same defense every year. Sometimes he ramps up the pressure … sometimes he backs off. Sometimes he has his defense press fullcourt … sometimes it picks up just beyond the top of the key. Sometimes his players fight through every screen … sometimes they switch. Occasionally, his defense backs off and plays a soft man that's not so different from a zone.
He's fiddled with several approaches this season and so far none of them have worked. Instead of being one of the best defensive teams in the country, Duke is subpar - currently No. 97 nationally in the Pomeroy metric (12th in the ACC).
Going into this weekend's games, Duke ranked near the bottom of every ACC defensive category except one. Duke does defend the 3-point shot well, allowing opponents to hit just 28.9 percent (third best in the ACC).
But Duke ranks 14th out of 15th in overall field goal percentage defense. And even that number is a bit skewed by Duke's solid 3-point field goal defense. Against 2-point field goal attempts, Duke is actually last in the league - allowing opponents to shoot 50.6 from inside the arch (BC is at 50.5 against 2-point attempts).
Duke is a middle-of-the pack fifth in steals, but 14th in blocked shots and 12th in defensive rebounding.
The defense appeared to reach rock bottom after back-to-back embarrassments against East Carolina and Vermont. Krzyzewski responded by switching his rotation - starting seniors Hairston and Thornton in place of sophomores Jefferson and Sulaimon. Neither senior captain is a great defender individually, but they understand how the Duke defense works and with them in the lineup Duke's defense became more cohesive - it jumped almost 100 places in the Pomeroy defensive efficiency rankings.
But there was a price to pay.
Neither Thornton nor Hairston bring much to the offensive end. And Hairston is a surprisingly poor rebounder for his size. As conference play started, Krzyzewski tried to return Sulaimon and Jefferson to the starting lineup. Duke's defense has slumped again in the last few games - although it may not be as simple as the change in the starting lineup (for instance, the poor defensive performance against Clemson came in a game where Sulaimon played just 12 minutes to 23 for Thornton).
Is there an answer?
I honestly don't know. I doubt Coach K will junk his man-to-man for a zone, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him back off the pressure and play a softer man-to-man.
THE SAVING GRACE?
The best advice I can offer at this moment is to repeat the famous words of Miss Dorothy Gale: "There's no place like home … there's no place like home."
Clicking your heels together three times is optional.
The schedule offers Duke two home games this week - Virginia visits Cameron tonight and N.C. State comes to town for a game Saturday afternoon.
So far, Duke has been a perfect 9-0 at home (we'll forget for a moment the late struggles against East Carolina and Vermont). The Blue Devils are working on a 25-game homecourt winning streak, the second-longest active streak in college basketball and within two games of being the fifth-longest homecourt win streak in Duke history.
Cameron has always been a fearsome place for opponents to play.
Since it was built as Duke Indoor Stadium in 1940, Duke has won 809 games in the building and lost just 153 (84.1 percent). In this century, Duke is 214-16 at home - over 93 percent.
Duke has rarely needed the homecourt edge more than it does this minute. In a real sense, this game will be a test of the Cameron Crazies. Over the years and years of success, the Crazies have become somewhat blasé at times, especially for non-marquee games.
That can't happen this week. This Duke team desperately needs all the passion and energy this crowd can provide. It needs to build a little confidence and momentum this week before the Devils hit the road again (at Miami on Jan. 22).
Merely winning at home will not salvage this season. Even if Duke does stay perfect in Cameron - and that's no guarantee - the Devils would finish 20-11 going into the postseason … and that's not an acceptable record for the Blue Devils.
Duke has been the ACC's best road team over the last two decades. Despite all the sniping about Krzyzewski's refusal to play non-conference games in road venues, he's won more ACC road games than any coach in league history. His ACC road winning percentage (61.7 percent) is better than Dean Smith or Everett Case (Vic Bubas and frank McGuire had better road records, but they played at a time when the non-Big Four schools were rarely competitive). His great teams in the mid-1990s won an ACC-record 38 straight ACC road games. As recently as 2012, the Devils went a perfect 8-0 on the road in the conference.
That's something Duke must recapture if the Blue Devils hope to finish with the kind of season that Krzyzewski's teams expect. But before this Duke team can find itself on the road, the Devils must use this week's two home games to fix what's wrong.
HOME AND AWAY
Over the first half-century of ACC basketball, Tobacco Road has been the heart and soul of the ACC. The Big Four North Carolina teams have won 49 of 60 ACC championships. A Big Four team has either won the tournament title (which is the official ACC championship) or at least shared the regular season title in 58 of 60 seasons.
And in the two seasons when the Big Four was shut out of conference honors (1990 and 2013), a Big Four team (in both cases, Duke) has gone deepest into the NCAA Tournament.
I bring this up because the sway of the Big Four in the ACC is in serious jeopardy.
That much was emphasized last Saturday when all four Tobacco Road teams were beaten by outsiders - by an average of almost 18 points. Okay, that figure is a bit skewered by N.C. State's 31-point homecourt loss to Virginia, but it's not like the other three have anything to brag about as they loss by 12, 13, and 15.
It's early, but so far this season, the Big Four ACC members are a combined 3-9 in conference play (2-8 against the rest of the league since one of the wins was Wake's victory over UNC).
By contrast, the ACC's three new members are 7-2 against the rest of the league.
Of course, some of that is favorable scheduling, especially for Syracuse. The Orange have only had to go on the road once so far - to lightweight Virginia Tech. They have a good win at home against mercurial UNC and a very narrow one at home against lightweight Miami - the 'Cuse trailed that one at the final TV time out.
It doesn't get a lot tougher for the Orange in the immediate future - they have a road game at Boston College on Jan. 13 and at Miami on Jan. 25. They do get dangerous (at home) Wake Forest in Winston-Salem on Jan. 29, but don't play a projected first-division ACC team on the road until a Feb. 12 trip to Pitt.
The most impressive of the ACC's three 3-0 teams is Virginia - by far. The Cavs already have road wins at Florida State and at N.C. State. If they add a victory at Duke tonight, it might be time to pencil the Cavs in as legitimate contenders for the regular season title.
We can all look at the ACC schedule today and see the three team tied at the top at 3-0 … with Clemson and FSU both 2-1. It's interesting that just five of 15 ACC teams currently boast a winning conference record - and nine have losing marks.
But there's another way of looking at the standings, especially early in the season, when the schedule can make raw records misleading. I've always thought that in view of the value of protecting the homecourt, that the real story is in the road wins and homecourt losses. I like to use a plus-minus system - a plus for every road win; a minus for a home loss.
Look at the standings in my system:
1. Virginia (wins at FSU and NCS)
2. Syracuse (win at VPI)
Pitt (win at NCS)
Maryland (win at BC)
Clemson (win at BC, home loss to FSU)
Miami (win at UNC, home loss to VPI)
Florida State (win at Clemson, home loss to UVa) … before tonight's game
11. UNC (home loss to Miami)
Notre Dame (home loss to NCS)
N.C. State (home losses to UVa and Pitt; road win at Notre Dame)
Virginia Tech (home losses to Syracuse and BC, road win at Miami)
Boston College (home losses to Maryland and Clemson, road win at VPI)
Interesting to note: three teams are perfect, winning at home and losing on the road (Duke, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest). Three teams are perfect the other way - winless at home but unbeaten on the road (N.C. State, BC and Virginia Tech).
THE RPI GAME
Over the years, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski has become a master at RPI manipulation.
His Blue Devils have finished in the RPI top 10 in the last seven years and in the top five in six of those years.
Krzyzewski understands what so many of his colleagues don't - that a team's RPI is more a function of the worst opponents a team plays than the best. So while K always schedules plenty of made-for-TV headliners (usually in neutral or tournament situations), Duke's strong RPI performance over the years is actually due to the under-the-radar games he's able to line up.
For instance, a year ago, when Duke finished No. 1 in the RPI, the Devils played just three teams outside the ACC that did not finish in the RPI top 100. Yeah, games with heavyweights Louisville, Ohio State and Kentucky helped, but so did games with Davidson, Florida Gulf Coast and Santa Clara (all top 100 opponents). The year before, Duke faced Belmont, Colorado State and Davidson from the top 100 (plus Penn, which barely missed).
Yet, this season, Krzyzewski's RPI magic has not worked.
Duke started the new year at No. 36 in the RPI and is currently No. 33 - not bad, but on track to be the worst Blue Devil finish in this century.
The problem is that several of K's traditionally strong mid-major opponents have underperformed.
Take Davidson - usually a reliable top 100 foe that Duke always beats (26 straight wins since a 1981 loss). The Wildcats had won 51 games the last two years and with a returning lineup of seniors and juniors, Bob McKillop's veteran team was projected as one of the favorites in the Southern Conference. But Davidson is currently 6-10 and a dismal 181 in the RPI - 121 places lower than a year ago.
Vermont is another disappointment. The Catamounts were the preseason favorites in the Americas East Conference, but after a 6-8 start (4-8 against Division 1) ranked 243 in the RPI. That figure is up to 150 with two straight conference wins, but still less than Coach K expected.
Duke has played just five top 100 RPI teams outside the league - less than half as many as last year. That's why the RPI is so disappointing. The Blue Devils can make up some ground in conference play, but there's no real chance of getting into familiar top 10 territory.
Is that a big deal?
The RPI - as flawed as it is - is the tool most heavily relied on by the NCAA Selection Committee. But history shows they aren't bound by it. As an example, a year ago, Duke was No. 1 in the RPI, but got a No. 2 seed - and a pre-Final Four matchup with Louisville, the No. 3 RPI team, plus a Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan State, which was No. 8 in the RPI.