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With Duke Struggling, What Next?

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Jan 18, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski talks to his players guard Grayson Allen (3) and guard Matt Jones (13) and guard Brandon Ingram (14) in their game against the Syracuse Orange at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Jan 18, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski talks to his players guard Grayson Allen (3) and guard Matt Jones (13) and guard Brandon Ingram (14) in their game against the Syracuse Orange at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

So Duke is in crisis … again.

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Three heartbreaking losses in a row have left Duke – and the Duke fan base – reeling. Throw in the last-second overtime loss to Utah just before Christmas and it’s obvious that the Blue Devils are in meltdown mode – at least a large segment of the fan base is.

Excuse me if I’m in denial. I’ve seen this before.

Almost exactly a year ago, Duke’s defense collapsed in back-to-back losses to N.C. State and Miami. The latter was a 16-point homecourt loss to a team that wouldn’t make the NCAA Tournament.

The next time out, Duke went on the road to No. 6 Louisville (a team that would make the Elite Eight) and won by 11.

Two weeks later, Mike Krzyzewski faced another crisis when Rasheed Sulaimon quit the team, leaving the Blue Devils with just eight scholarship players.

How did that season turn out?

A year before that, Duke appeared to be in meltdown mode after losing two of three ACC games to start January – a heartbreaker to Notre Dame and a 13-point loss to a Clemson team that wouldn’t make the NCAA Tournament.

Duke responded with a narrow victory over Virginia (a team that would win the ACC going away and reach the Sweet 16). That Blue Devil team won nine of its next 10 and 14 of 17 going forward.

And the year before THAT, Duke lost two of three in the ACC immediately after losing forward Ryan Kelly to an injury, including a 27-point loss at Miami.

Duke came back to win six in a row and eight of 10 before Kelly returned and helped the Devils beat Miami in Cameron and eventually reach the NCAA Elite Eight.

All three of those teams – teams that staggered in mid-January – bounced back to finish in the top 10.

Is there any reason to think that this Duke team won’t do the same?

Okay, there might be some valid reasons to think that.

-- This is the thinnest Duke team that K has had since the 2000 season, when K went with six players almost all the way. The seventh man (big man Matt Christensen) averaged less than 10 minutes a game. Coach K is now rotating six players almost all the way – the Iron Six played all but two minutes against Syracuse, all but two minutes against Notre Dame and all but four minutes in the loss to Clemson.

-- This is one of the youngest, least experienced Duke teams in memory. Last year’s team was young with freshmen averaging 102.3 minutes a game, slightly more than the current 90.0 minutes a game by this freshman class. But last year’s team also had a veteran core with senior Quinn Cook – a two-year starter, plus juniors Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee and Sulaimon (for much of the season) and sophomore Matt Jones.

The current rotation has junior Matt Jones, who came into the season with 18 career starts to his credit, senior Plumlee, starting for the first time in his career, and sophomore Grayson Allen, who – despite his Final Four heroics in 2015 – had never started before this year and averaged just nine minutes a game as a freshman.

Has K ever had to play a lineup this inexperienced? Maybe 1983, when freshmen Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas were the best players on am 11-17 team.

-- This is perhaps the least balanced Duke team in memory. Plumlee is the only real post player in the current rotation. Freshman Brandon Ingram has the height and reach of a power forward, but not the strength to play inside. He’s really a perimeter player – and so are Allen, Jones and freshmen Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton – the other players in the current rotation.

And, yet, Duke has been competitive in every loss. It wouldn’t take much to turn that 3-3 ACC record into 6-0 … just one play in each of the three losses.

"The game is tremendous – it can be incredibly great to you and it can be incredibly cruel," Krzyzewski said Monday night. "Right now, we’re going through a cruel part.

"We’re playing well. We’re playing our hearts out. That hasn’t been rewarded. We’ve been rewarded a lot. That’s why the banners are up there. But right now, it’s a cruel time. It’s different if there’s attitude or whatever. They are busting their butts."

Krzyzewski was as depressed and as angry as I’ve ever seen him after the Syracuse loss. He was depressed because he can see how close his young, crippled team is to success and it hurts him to see them so close and lose. He’s was angry because he thought the refs swallowed their whistles on a play in the final five seconds when Matt Jones got hammered going after a loose ball in the lane with no call.

You could tell that Krzyzewski wanted to blast the refs for the non-call. Instead of saying something that would get him suspended, he elected to use the codeword "amazing" to describe the play. I know that in his game-story, Jim Sumner related that K used the word seven times in his brief press conference, but after transcribing my notes, I found that he actually used it 10 times in referring to the play. He did specify that the "amazing" play was the one when Jones was crunched at the foul line with about 3-4 seconds left, not the equally questionable no-call on Jones’ attempt to launch a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.

But if Jim miscounted the Krzyzewski’s amazings, he did ask the best question at the press conference. He pointed out that Duke has five days before its next game (at N.C. State Saturday). Jim was about to ask Coach K how he planned to use those five days to help the team get better, but before he could finish the question, Krzyzewski cut him off and said, "We haven’t figured anything out yet."

Hearing that abrupt response, I immediately had a flash-back to the night of Feb. 27, 2001. Duke had just lost its home finale to Maryland. More importantly, sophomore center Carlos Boozer, the team’s only effective big man, had just suffered a broken foot.

"This is a tragic event for us," senior Nate James told reporters after the game.

Krzyzewski, after a despondent press conference, retired to his office. The Duke coach said that he felt sorry for himself.

"Okay, Carlos is out and it’s not going to happen this year," Krzyzewski later wrote of his blackest hour. "We’re not going to win the national championship ... it’s over. It’s over."

But after a brief period of self-pity, Krzyzewski said his military training took over. Over the years, he had put two words at the heart of his coaching philosophy: Next play. It was his way of saying to forget the past and move on. Now it was time for him to take his own words to heart.

Next play.

Krzyzewski stayed in his office until after dawn the next say, figuring out a way to remake his team to cope with Boozer’s loss. He changed the team’s entire style of play – and five days after that "tragic" loss to Maryland, Duke went to Chapel Hill and hammered No. 6 North Carolina on their home floor. The Devils won their last 10 games, sweeping the ACC and NCAA titles.

"It’s a big picture thing for me all the time," Krzyzewski said after the Syracuse loss. "As long as I’m coaching, I’m going to continue to ask, what’s next? Whether it’s the end of the season or during the season."

Of course, that’s not to suggest that Krzyzewski always comes up with the right answer. But his track record is pretty good … and often – as in 2001 – his solution is something that comes out of the blue. Two years ago, when Duke was slumping in January, Coach K temporarily went to a platoon system that energized the team and sparked its revival. Last season, his answer was to finally commit to the zone, which gave his young team time to learn to play man-to-man defense.

What will it be this year?

Well, there is one easy solution to Duke’s problems. And Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim pointed it out in his postgame press conference.

"Duke is without Jefferson," he said. "They need that one guy. He would make all the difference in the world."

I suggested the same thing in a column Monday. Again, it’s not that Amile Jefferson is a superman or that his return would suddenly make Duke a super team. But he was playing at an exceptionally high level when he broke his foot. His return would dramatically improve the team’s rebounding and it’s inside defense.

More importantly, he would allow K to go from a six to a seven man rotation. It frees Ingram to be a perimeter player again. It adds another experienced player – the most experienced player … Jefferson came into the season with more starts and almost as many career minutes played as every other player on roster combined.

I’ll repeat what I said Monday – Duke is a top 10 team with Jefferson in the rotation. Without him, the thin, unbalanced, young Blue Devils are barely a top 25 team … if that.

Unfortunately, Krzyzewski can’t just wave a magic wand and return Jefferson to perfect health. It’s not going to happen by Saturday, but it might not be as long as some pessimists suggest. I was told Monday night that a return in early February was looking more likely than a mid-month or late-month return.

Of course, that is merely speculation, Even Coach K doesn’t know the exact target date at this point. He’s not leaking anything – Barry Jacobs pointed out Monday night that nobody even bothers to ask K about Jefferson in his postgame press conferences any more. I guess we’re all trained not to seek injury info – it’s a waste of time.

Even in a best-case scenario, Duke still has a number of games to play before Jefferson returns. And the next three are on the road – at N.C. State, at Miami and at Georgia Tech.

None of those are anything like a sure victory.

True, N.C. State is struggling (0-5 in the ACC before tonight’s game at Pitt). But Raleigh’s PNC Arena has been a house of horrors for recent Duke teams – the Devils have lost three of the last four there, including the last two in a row. Plus, N.C. State has the kind of players that give the Duke defense so much trouble – a strong, penetrating point guard and a trio of strong, experienced big men in the post.

At least State doesn’t have the depth to wear Duke down.

No. 15 Miami offers different problems. The ‘Canes are probably the best team Duke has played since Kentucky in November. Jim Larranaga has one of the most experienced teams in college basketball. But it’s very similar to Duke in balance – Miami is very strong on the perimeter, but very thin up front. Senior center Tonye Jekiri led the ACC in rebounding last season, but he’s not a part of the Miami offense – the ‘Canes have not had a post player score double figures in an ACC game this year.

Georgia Tech, is like N.C. State, struggling (1-4 ACC at the moment), but the one win was a homecourt victory over Virginia. The Jackets don’t have a strong point guard, but Brian Gregory does have some muscle in the paint with Charles Mitchell and Nick Jacobs. Marcus Georges-Hunt is a strong wing scorer and VPI transfer Adam Smith gives the Jackets the 3-point threat they’ve missed in recent years.

Can Duke survive that run of games before we start thinking of getting Jefferson back?

That’s Krzyzewski’s challenge.

For all the problems this Jefferson-less Duke team has at the moment, it also has some considerable strengths. Grayson Allen, Brandon Ingram and Like Kennard are three of the most explosive offensive players in the ACC. Marshall Plumlee showed just how effective he can be in the Syracuse loss. And while Matt Jones had struggled offensively in the last 3-4 games, he’s a solid all-around player and the most experienced player in the current rotation.

Throw in Derryck Thornton, who struggles at times, but also has some impressive stretches (his two late 3s almost brought Duke back against the ‘Cuse).

Can Coach K put that jigsaw puzzle together into a team that can keep its head above water under Jefferson returns?

Keep in mind that Duke is not far off – three timely plays and the Devils would be 6-0 in the ACC.

"We’ve put ourselves in position to win," Krzyzewski said Monday night. "Our kids have fought the whole year. They’re undermanned. They’re underaged. They’ve done a good job."

I have no idea what Krzyzewski will come up with in the five days he has before the N.C. State team. But I expect to see something.

Maybe he commits to the zone and tries to slow the game down? Maybe he juggles matchups and lets Jones guard opposing power forwards and uses Ingram to defend the point? Maybe he pushes Allen to look more for his shot (Ingram and Kennard both have as many or more field goal attempts in ACC play)? Maybe he starts Nick Pagliuca in an effort to inspire his team (as starting walk-on Patrick Davidson did in response to a two-game losing streak in 2005)?

Slowing things down (with or without a zone) would allow the guards to commit to defensive rebounding. That’s been a problem – Allen was averaging 5.3 rebounds a game through the Virginia Tech win … he’s had exactly three rebounds in the last three games. Jones was averaging 3.4 in the first 16 games … he’s had just six in the last three games. They’ve got to help on the defensive boards – even if it means reducing fast-break opportunities.

Frankly, I don’t know what Krzyzewski will do to fix this.

But I expect something. And I still expect Coach K to reverse the team’s slide in the near future. Until then, I’ll live with my disappointment and not surrender to panic.

"When you lose, it makes you appreciate even more what you’ve done," Krzyzewski said. "And it should make you hungrier to win again."