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Struggling Is A Relative Term

Struggling at Duke is not like struggling at most programs.

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Jan 25, 2016; Coral Gables, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes guard Angel Rodriguez (13) fouls Duke Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen (3) during the first half at BankUnited Center.
Jan 25, 2016; Coral Gables, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes guard Angel Rodriguez (13) fouls Duke Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen (3) during the first half at BankUnited Center.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Duke’s loss to Miami Monday night drops the Blue Devils to 15-6 on the season, 4-4 in the ACC.

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That’s the team’s worst record after 21 games since the 1996 team started 13-8. And that was the last Duke team that failed to win at least 22 games. When next week’s poll is released Monday afternoon, the Blue Devils will drop out of the rankings for the first time since the final 2007 poll.

Clearly, Mike Krzyzewski’s 2016 Duke team is struggling.

And just as clearly, the team will be on much firmer footing when senior forward Amile Jefferson returns to the rotation – probably very soon. But I wrote about that last week … and I can continue to believe Coach K will find a way for this team to keep its head above water.

No, what I want to do is measure Duke’s "struggles".

I see from the DBR (and other Duke) message boards that there are some fans in full panic mode, questioning almost everything about the program. I saw this a decade ago, when Duke endured a few sub-standard (for Duke) years. Panicky fans were debating every aspect of the program. Does Duke shoot too many 3s? Is K’s rotation is too small? K’s got to be more flexible on defense … he’s got to recruit differently.

To be fair, this was and is just a small part of the fan base – but they are very loud and their panic can be contagious.

It helps to keep things in perspective.

You don’t like the way K does things? Well, who would you like him to emulate? Because I can tell you, that whoever you name – John Calipari, Bill Self, Tom Izzo, Roy Williams – he has not been as consistent or as successful as Coach K.

Nobody wins EVERY year – not since John Wooden’s run from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. And that was a different time (plus it was barely a 15-year run of excellence).

What’s remarkable about Krzyzewski is how sustained his run is – his Duke teams have finished in the Top 10 in 18 of the last 19 seasons (and his one miss in that span spent (seven weeks that season in the top 10). That successful run of sustained success doesn’t include his 1986-94 streak, when K reached the Final Four in seven of nine seasons and won two national championships.

Of course, you could argue that his early run was a different era too. There’s truth to that – K’s great Final Four streak was compiled in an era when no Duke player left early for the NBA. But that merely emphasizes how remarkable it is that he has sustained his success in the one-and-done era.

It’s possible to make comparisons over any arbitrary time frame – 5 years? 10 years? 25 years? I’ve made the case – and I don’t think it’s open for debate – that Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils have been the most successful program in the 64-team NCAA Tournament era (which opened in 1985). That’s 31 seasons.

But as I mentioned college basketball was different in the late 1980s and pretty much through the 1990s. Kids did go pro in that era and some high school kids jumped directly to the NBA, but there were few one-and-dones (most of the kids who opted for college stayed 2-3 seasons at least).

So let’s measure Duke against the best programs in this era by looking at just the 21st Century and measuring consistency and success.

-- First, check out the basic first step for every program every season – making the NCAA Tournament.

Just four teams have made the NCAA field 16 times in the 16 years of this century – Michigan State, Kansas, Gonzaga … and Duke.

Kentucky and Arizona have made it 14 times. UNC has missed three times in the first 16 seasons of this century. Florida has also made it 13 times. UCLA 12 times. UConn has made it 11 times. Indiana has made it 10 times.

-- If you count Sweet 16s, which measures consistent NCAA performance, Duke stands out. The Blue Devils have reached the Sweet 16 12 times in this century.

Michigan State has 11 Sweet 16s … Kansas had 10 … Kentucky and Arizona each have nine. UCLA has eight. North Carolinam Florida and UConn each have seven.

-- Michigan State’s Izzo is famous for his ability to reach the Final Four. He’s done it six times in the 16 years of this century. Several other schools have done it four times – Kentucky, Kansas, UNC, UConn, Florida … and Duke. UCLA has three.

-- Duke and UConn each have three national titles in the new century. UNC and Florida have two championships. Kansas, Michigan State, Kentucky, Maryland and Syracuse have one each.

So who would you change places with?

I think Kansas has been the second-most consistent program in this century. The Jayhawks have dominated the Big 12 in a manner than Duke can’t match in the ACC. But the Blue Devils have had more NCAA success. Michigan State has also been consistent. But unless you think reaching the Final Four is the be-all and end-all of success, Izzo can’t match Krzyzewski’s postseason success.

Nobody wins every year. But nobody wins as many years as Coach K.


Let’s look at bad seasons this decade. We’ll just look at the true Bluebloods:

-- UCLA: 11-17 in 2004 (also 14-18 in 2010).

-- North Carolina: 8-20 in 2002.

-- Indiana: 6-25 in 2009 (also 10-21 in 2010). Just a thought, what would the Duke fan vase sound like after back-to-back seasons like that?

-- Kentucky: The 21-12 2013 season that ended with a loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT was bad, but not quite as bad as the 22-14 season in 2009 that started with a homecourt loss to VMI and ended with a loss to Notre Dame in the NIT quarterfinals.

-- UConn: 17-14 with no postseason in 2007. The record was actually a bit worse in 2010, when the Huskies finished 18-16, but that team did reach the NIT (losing to VPI in the second round).

-- Michigan State: Nothing too bad … the worse was an unranked 19-12 season in 2002 that ended with a Round of 32 loss to N.C. State in the NCAA Tournament.

-- Kansas: Again, not too bad. The worse was an unranked 2000 team that finished 24-10 when it lost to Duke in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.

Then there is Duke. Clearly the worst season of the century for the Blue Devils was 2007, when Duke got off to an 18-3 start and climbed as high as No. 5 in the AP rankings. But a last-second loss at Virginia started a closing spiral that saw Duke lose eight of its final 12, including opening game losses to N.C. State (in overtime) in the ACC Tournament and to VCU (on a last-second shot) in the NCAA Tournament.

That team finished 22-11 and unranked. It’s not only the only unranked Duke team in this century (since 1996, actually), but the only Blue Devil team that didn’t finish in the top 10.

In a way, 2007 was similar to this year. It was a young team – there wasn’t a senior on the roster and junior DeMarcus Nelson was the only upperclassman. The most talented player on the roster (freshman Gerald Henderson) was subpar physically for most of the season. The most experienced point guard (sophomore Greg Paulus) broke his foot in preseason and never got back into the form that he had showed as a freshman starter to a 32-win team (when he led the ACC in assists). The team’s best player – sophomore forward Josh McRoberts -- was forced by circumstances to play much of the season at the team’s only big, surrounded by four guards.

With all that, the team won 22 games and came within an eyelash of doing much better – heartbreaking losses at Virginia, at home to Virginia Tech and Florida State, and in postseason to N.C. State and VCU prevented the ’07 Devils from having a Duke-like season.

That would be the season I would measure this year’s Duke team against – provided Jefferson fails to return. I keep saying, it can be a very different team when he returns.

The 2007 season was the worst year Duke has endured since the 1995 disaster and the modest 1996 recovery. But in the context of college basketball – even college basketball’s bluebloods – it was not that bad.


I couldn’t help noticing a couple of interesting stats in the most recent ACC release:

-- Remember when Billy Packer went ballistic during the 2001 Final Four, complaining that Duke "made more free throws than their opponents attempted"? (Of course, he never mentioned that Arizona, Duke’s opponent in the title game, had an even bigger free throw disparity).

I’ve written before that despite Packer’s hysteria, it’s not uncommon for a successful team to make more free throws than their opponents attempt.

Checking Monday morning’s ACC stats I saw that four ACC teams are currently making more free throws than their opponents attempted – Duke, Pitt, Miami and Virginia Tech (which is attempting more free throws than anybody in the ACC).

Three more teams are close enough to doing it that with one strong night at the free throw line, they could be making more than their opponents attempt – UNC, Clemson and N.C. State.

It’s no big deal.

-- One of the reasons that UNC has supposed to be so much better this season was the return of Marcus Paige to good health.

Well, Paige did miss six games with a hand injury, but he returned with a 20-point game against Maryland on Dec. 1 and appeared to be back in form, especially after a 30-point scoring effort against Florida State.

But look deeper and it’s clear that Paige has been struggling, even before a recent four-game slump that’s seen him score a grand total of 15 points against Syracuse, N.C. State Wake Forest and Virginia Tech.

For the year, Paige is averaging a mere 12.7 points a game, shooting 41.1 percent from the floor and 32.9 percent from 3-point range. In ACC play, he’s been even worse – 10.9 points a game at 35.9 percent from the floor and a dreadful 20.5 percent on a team-high 39 3-point tries. He’s the big reason UNC is last in the ACC in 3-point shooting.

Another is sophomore Justin Jackson, expected to be a breakout star this year, who is hitting 11.8 percent on his 18 3-point tries in conference play. Theo Pinson, another player who was supposed to step up this year, is shooting 21.4 percent on 3s from 3-point range.

So how come UNC is undefeated in the ACC and ranked No. 2 nationally?

Luckily for the Heels, senior Brice Johnson, junior Isaiah Hicks and sophomore Joel Berry have all elevated their games this season. Johnson, averaging 17.9 points and 11.0 rebounds in conference play, is the team’s ACC player of the year candidate. Hicks is the frontrunner for ACC Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 10.0 points a game (11.1 in ACC play) and shooting 67.6 percent from the field off the bench.

And Berry has been the Heels most consistent player, scoring in double figures in 11 straight games. Indeed, he’s been the team’s bellweather – he’s been out of double figures just three times this season and UNC has lost two of those three games.

-- As Barry Jacobs pointed out Tuesday morning, Boston College looks like a real candidate to become the ACC’s first winless team since Maryland went 0-14 in 1987. Of course, with 18 ACC games on the schedule now, the Eagles would have to go 0-18 (plus one in the ACC Tournament) to reach the dubious milestone.

That would set up an even more dubious achievement – with an 0-8 ACC football record last fall, Boston College is on pace to become the first school in ACC history to go winless in both revenue sports in the same school year.

Well, technically Georgia Tech did it in 1980-81, when the Jackets joined the league. But the football team didn’t play an ACC schedule that season (although they were 0-2 against two ACC opponents), while the basketball team was 0-14 in ACC play.

But no team that played a full conference schedule has ever failed to win at least one football or basketball game in the same season. BC is currently 0-7 in ACC play and no loss was closer than Tuesday night’s 10-point homecourt loss to Florida State.

-- Three ACC players have had 30-point games off the bench this season, but all three are normally starters who didn’t start for one reason or another.

Virginia Tech’s Justin Bibbs, who has started 19 of 20 games for the Hokies, scored 31 points against Grambling State in his one non-start. Duke’s Grayson Allen, who has now started 20 of 21 games for the Devils, scored 30 in his non-start against VCU.

And Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson, who has started 15 of 19 games for the Irish, had a career high 31 in his non-start against Duke.

Most points for a real sub? Well, Virginia Tech’s Seth Allen, who has started 10 of 20 games, had 25 off the bench against Northwestern. And Duke’s Luke Kennard, who has started just five of 21 games, has 24 off the bench against Utah.

UNC’s Hicks, who has not started a game, had 21 in a win at Syracuse.