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Struggling: Duke's Been Here Before

I'm not sure what tweaks need to be made to restore this team's ability to play defense. But I am reasonably confident that Krzyzewski will find an answer to the problem.

Coach K is getting down to business with his team
Coach K is getting down to business with his team
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It was a bleak Wednesday morning in Durham - cold, dark with overcast and wet with a freezing drizzle of rain.

And hanging over the city was the pall of Duke's Tuesday night second-half collapse against Miami - the second loss in a row for a team that had opened the season with 14 straight wins. Hard to believe, but just 72 hours before that bleak awakening, Duke was the No. 2 team in the nation, undefeated and seemingly headed for greatness.

Now, it's not clear that this is a top 10 team any more.

On the MLB Network, they sometimes play a game called: Concern? Panic? Doom?. A panel of experts will look at a team's current problem and decide whether it merely warrants concern or whether the problem should inspire panic. The worst case is doom - a problem that can't be fixed.

So what is it for Duke - Concern? Panic? Or Doom?

Obviously, there has to be concern after the last two games. And just as obviously it's too early for doom - everybody's healthy and Coach K is still around to straighten things about.

But what about panic? Is that a viable option at the moment?

After all, the Duke team that lost to Miami at home should be a big underdog at Louisville this weekend. The Devils will be favored in a home game with Pitt Monday night (although that's no gimmie), but after that, Duke faces three killer road games in a row - at St. John's, at Notre Dame and at Virginia.

The season could spin out of control very quickly.

Or Coach Krzyzewski could fix what ever has gone wrong with his young team.

Right now, the defense - which looked so solid before Christmas - has collapsed. And the offense, which rated as the nation's most efficient through the end of December, has started to show flaws. Before the last two games, Duke was shooting 52.4 percent from the floor and 38.5 from 3-point range, while averaging 85 points a game.

Over the last two games, Duke has shot 40.5 percent from the field, 27.1 percent from the 3-point line and has averaged 74.5 points a game.

So it is not just the defense that has slumped.

Can Coach K fix the problem in time to save the season?

"I'm somebody who has coached a lot of games," Krzyzewski said after the Miami loss. "I'm not saying that I know it better than you. I probably do, but I've been through these things."

The Duke coach said he saw the problem coming.

"To be quite frank with you, nothing surprises me because I've had just about everything happen to me as a coach, and most of it's really good," he said. "I just have felt since Christmas that there's something missing with our group, and I've said it. I've said to the press. I've said it to my team, and when you're still winning, you don't necessarily believe it completely, but I've felt it since Christmas. I haven't been able to figure out how to change it."

That last statement is disturbing, but Krzyzewski followed by explaining that sometimes a team has to hit bottom before it can start to make the necessary changes.

"We're all on the same page now after two losses, and after getting our butt beat," he said. "We didn't just lose tonight, we got our butts beat tonight. In some respects, some of that is good. None of my teams have won here without losing. You just can't lose that much. The taste of losing has to be distasteful, and you try to figure out how not to have that taste. If you become really good, then you got it and that's what I'm going to try to do with that group and we will see how successful we'll be."

Frankly, I have no idea what tweaks Krzyzewski needs to make to this team. He may alter is lineup and rotation. He may change the way he plays defense.

Let me stop here to elaborate. He's not going to abandon the man-to-man and play zone. I know that there is a segment of Duke fans who have raised a pro-zone chorus in recent days. Without being insulting, allow me to say, they don't know what they are talking about.

To say Coach K plays man-to-man defense is not to say he plays the same defense every year or even every game within a year. Just as there are thousands of variations of the zone - and some matchup zones are almost identical to certain switching man-to-mans - there are thousands of variations of man-to-man. K has used them all - defenses where the defenders switch on every pick or where they struggle to fight through every pick; defenses that pick up at fullcourt, three-quarters court or halfcourt; defenses that pressure the ball and sag off the other offensive players; defenses that pressure every player; defenses that sag off the ballhandler and the other players.

I'm not sure what tweaks need to be made to restore this team's ability to play defense. But I am reasonably confident that Krzyzewski will find an answer to the problem.


Because he's done it so consistently in the past.

I can't believe that I writing this story again because I wrote almost the exact same thing in January a year ago.

Remember the situation? Duke has lost consecutive ACC road games to Notre Dame and Clemson to drop to 12-4. The Devils had dropped to No. 20 in the AP poll -- the team's lowest ranking since the 2006-07 season.

At the time, I wrote on DBR:

All I can say is that Krzyzewski has a pretty good track record when it comes to finding the key for his teams. 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.

The next time out, Krzyzewski unveiled his two-platoon system and it proved the key in helping the team edge Virginia, the eventual ACC champion. Indeed, Duke won nine of the last 10 (the only loss being the overtime classic at Syracuse). Starting with that Virginia win, Duke won 14 of 17 in the ACC before losing the ACC title game to Virginia.

I don't think anybody foresaw that K would use platoons to energize his struggling team. I know I didn't.

But that's his track record - he finds something, whether a player, a rotation change or a stylistic change to fix whatever is ailing his team.

I've done it before, but allow me to walk you through memory lane:

-- 1997: Duke was off to a 4-3 ACC start, when K benched starting center Greg Newton and replaced him with freshman forward Chris Carrawell. The result was a small lineup with three guards and two forwards (neither real post players). Still that team won 11 of 12 games down the stretch and claimed an unexpected ACC regular season title.

-- 2001: Krzyzewski was forced to radically re-alter his rotation after center Carlos Boozer was injured in the last week of the regular season. He not only used the Casey Sanders-Reggie Love rotation in the middle to replace Boozer, but also replaced fifth-year senior Nate James in the starting rotation with freshman Chris Duhon (and brought James in as a Sixth Man). Duke became a small, quick, 3-point shooting team and won 10 straight games to finish the season with a national title.

-- 2005: Coach K didn't like his team's energy after back-to-back losses at Maryland and at Virginia Tech. He responded by starting walk-on Jordan Davidson against Chris Paul and No. 5 Wake Forest. Davidson played less than two minutes, but his energy and defensive intensity rubbed off on his teammates. The Devils beat the Deacs that night and won nine of the next 10 games, including the ACC title.

-- 2009: Duke began falling apart as late January turned into February. Sophomore point guard Nolan Smith melted down in a 74-47 loss at Clemson. Krzyzewski's first move was to restore three-year starter Greg Paulus to the point guard job. But Paulus, who essentially lost his starting job to injuries, was not the same player as a senior and Duke continued to struggle with back-to-back losses to UNC and Boston College. K tried a more radical move - he replaced Paulus in the starting lineup with freshman Elliot Williams and moved junior Jon Scheyer - a lifelong wing guard - to the point. Duke won 10 of the next 11 (including another ACC championship) with that lineup.

2010: K changed everything in February again - inserting senior center Brian Zoubek into the starting lineup and changing his team's fast, helter-skelter style to a halfcourt game that relied on offensive rebounding (mostly by Zoubek) to beat teams. Duke won 18 of 19 down the stretch to give K another ACC title and his fourth national championship.

I've already mentioned how he fixed last year's team in early January.


This Duke team looked so good in November and December that it's easy to forget that it's built around three freshmen.

That's uncharted territory - Coach K has not had a team that's so dependent on freshman since 1982-83, when four freshmen started on an 11-17 team. And those were good freshmen - Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas would be starters on a 37-3 NCAA runnerup team in 1986.

Krzyzewski has had freshmen play key roles on some successful teams - Bobby Hurley in 1990; Grant Hill in 1991; Chris Carrawell in 1997; Elton Brand and Shane Battier in 1998; Chris Duhon in 2001; J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams in 2003; Daniel Ewing in 2004; Kyle Singler in 2008; Austin Rivers in 2012; Rasheed Sulaimon in 2013; Jabari Parker in 2014.

But even though some of those first-year players played key roles, they were all surrounded by more experienced players. Not since 1983, has Coach K built his team with a trio of freshmen at the core.

Is it so surprising that they've hit a bit of a freshman wall? Parker went through it in January of last year. Austin Rivers slumped at the same time - he averaged just 8.6 points and shot 36 percent from the floor in his first five January games. Even Grant Hill scored just 19 points total in his first four ACC games (and was 6-o-f16 from the floor).

Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow seem to be confronting the wall now. Even Jahlil Okafor, whose numbers remain solid, appears to be a slightly less effective player in the last few games than he was earlier.

There is really very little to guide us on what we would expect. Duke has never had a team quite like this. This last ACC team built around this many gifted freshman would probably be UNC in 2002-03. Point guard Ray Felton, wing Rashad McCants and big man Sean May all ended up as lottery picks, but as freshman starters in 2003, they were 19-16 (6-10 ACC) and wound up in the NIT. And, remember, that team started out by winning the preseason NIT and beating No. 2 Kansas in New York City (although, to be fair, May did struggle with a foot injury that season).

We could also look at several recent Kentucky teams for guidance. Several have done well with freshman-oriented teams, but check out last season. Loaded with what some commentators touted as the greatest recruiting class of all time, the Wildcats lost three times in the pre-conference season and lost six conference games (including three of four at one point).

Kentucky was a mediocre 24-10 entering the NCAA Tournament as an eighth seed … and still made a run to the national title game.

It was probably unrealistic of Duke fans to expect this year's team to cruise through the season without a few bumps. K warned us, but the team looked so good early, that we refused to listen to him.

This is still the team that dominated Wisconsin in one of the toughest road venues in college basketball. This is still the team that beat Michigan State, UConn and Temple by double digits.

I don't know what catalyst K will find to get the team back to that level.

But I believe he will find it.

As for the question: Concern, Panic or Doom?

Right now, my answer is Concern.

But there is no reason to panic - and there won't be, even if Duke doesn't pull out of it Saturday at Louisville.