clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Putting This Duke Team In Context

This is a great read but here's a video bonus: Al will be part of a series called "Against The Odds," talking about the 1944 Battle of Mortain. This airs on the American Heroes Channel at 10:00 pm Monday. Don't miss it.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Mar 19, 2016; Providence, RI, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Luke Kennard (5) and center Marshall Plumlee (40) celebrate after their victory over the Yale Bulldogs in a second round game of the 2016 NCAA Tournament at Dunkin Donuts Center.
Mar 19, 2016; Providence, RI, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Luke Kennard (5) and center Marshall Plumlee (40) celebrate after their victory over the Yale Bulldogs in a second round game of the 2016 NCAA Tournament at Dunkin Donuts Center.
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Duke beat Yale 71-64 Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16 of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

No big deal, right?

If you're going to shop Amazon please start here and help DBR
Drop us a line at our new address

After all, getting to the Sweet 16 is no great accomplishment for Mike Krzyzewski’s program. This is 23rd time he’s had the Blue Devils in the regional semifinals. Winning 25 games is nothing special – K’s Duke teams have done that 24 times. This year’s 25-10 record is Duke’s second worst in the last 19 seasons. The team’s No. 19 rank in the final AP poll is Duke’s second-worst final rank since 1996.

If these guys don’t win a couple of games in Anaheim next week, they’ll be remembered by a generation of Blue Devil fans as underachievers.As I read the previous paragraphs, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything more ridiculous – yet I’ve already heard from fans complaining about Duke’s second-half struggles against Yale, following a tough first-round game that saw the Devils unable to put UNC Wilmington away until the final seconds.Granted, this is not a vintage Duke team. It’s not nearly as strong as 1999 or 1992 or 2001 or even 2013. Certainly last year’s team was better.But is that the standard by which we are going to judge all Duke teams going forward?

Look, Duke is the nation’s most successful NCAA basketball program over the last three decades. Measure success since 1985 (when the NCAA expanded to the modern 64-team tournament) and nobody has more championships (five), more Final Fours (12), more NCAA wins (90) or a better NCAA winning percentage (78.3 percent).I pointed out earlier that Krzyzewski’s NCAA record is such that if Duke loses in the Elite Eight, it would LOWER his career NCAA winning percentage.That’s an incredible standard to measure a team against.And it’s unfair to this Duke team.Krzyzewski noted that earlier this season, when troubles hit, that his own long history of success did not guarantee anything for this group of kids. Look at the 2015-16 Duke team in context, ignoring for a moment the expectations that come with being a Duke basketball team.

Consider what this team has had to endure:

-- Injuries: The loss of Amile Jefferson after nine games was a devastating blow. The senior forward was (1) the team’s most experienced player (in fact, his 2,032 minutes played coming into the season were almost exactly the equal of the total minutes played by every other player on the roster combined); (2) the team’s best rebounder (in the nine games he played, he had 35 more rebounds than Marshall Plumlee, the team’s second best rebounder); and (3) the team’s best interior defender – more than that, he was the acknowledged voice of the Duke defense.With Jefferson, Duke was a legit top 10 team. Without him?

On top of that injury, the team lost junior Matt Jones – the team’s next-most experienced player and the team’s best perimeter defender – to a badly sprained ankle in mid-February. Jones missed just one game, but he’s been visibly hobbled since returning (and tweaking his other ankle).Then there was Marshall Plumlee’s broken nose at the ACC Tournament, which certainly has at least something to do with the team’s overtime loss to Notre Dane. Plumlee has also had to deal with back issues most of the season, which has been difficult for a guy averaging almost 31 minutes a game.-- Inexperience: Last year’s team won the national title with three freshmen in the starting lineup. This year’s team has usually started two freshmen (with Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton trading one backcourt spot while Brandon Ingram starts at forward).

The difference is that the 2015 Blue Devils had considerable experience to help the freshmen along. Senior Quinn Cook was starting for the third straight year and junior Amile Jefferson was a returning starter at forward. In addition, the team had junior Rasheed Sulaimon -- a starter on Duke’s 2013 Elite Eight team – in the rotation for almost two-thirds of the season. Throw in sophomore Matt Jones and junior Marshall Plumlee as two more players who entered last season with at least a modicum of experience.

This year’s team had Jefferson, but his early departure left Matt Jones as the player with the most previous experience. Plumlee had four years on the roster, but less than 700 minutes on the floor. Grayson Allen was No. 3 in experience – and he started the year with just over 300 minutes experience to his credit – only slightly more than Chase Jeter will compile this season.

The undisputable fact is, that since the loss of Jefferson, this is the least experienced team in the Krzyzewski era. Even his 1983 team, which often started four freshmen, had seniors Tom Emma, Chip Engelland, Mike Tissaw and sophomore Dan Meagher on the roster.

Krzyzewski has pointed out that he’s playing three 18-year-olds (Ingram, Thornton and Chase Jeter). Kennard is 19. Allen is 20.Those circumstances are the context that must be applied to this team.

There was a moment in late January, with Jefferson gone and the team floundering – losing four of five games (including losses at home to Notre Dame and Syracuse) – when Krzyzewski was not sure whether this team would qualify for the NCAA Tournament.He reflected on that moment in the aftermath of the Yale victory.

"I think I appreciate it more than anybody because I’ve said it since Amile went out that we might not make the tournament," he said. "Chase has started to play well this last month, but basically we’ve been a six-man team. So I have an unbelievable appreciation for it."We’re very proud of winning our 25th game and being a Sweet 16 team. I mean, that’s a heck of a thing for this group."Probably the low point of the season was Feb. 2, when the team headed to Georgia Tech without Krzyzewski. The veteran coach, just days short of his 69th birthday, was ailing. So was his team – down to 4-4 in ACC play after losing three of four previous games.Duke trailed by four points at the half in Atlanta and appeared to be just 20 minutes away from a full-blown meltdown. But with the season on the line, acting head coach Jeff Capel put the team in a zone defense, Allen got hot from 3-point range and Duke pulled out an 80-71 victory.

That was the start of a remarkable run.

Over the next two weeks, Duke won win five straight games, including consecutive victories over No. 13 Louisville, No. 7 Virginia and No. 5 North Carolina.

"Somehow, our group just showed incredible toughness while they were tired and won," Krzyzewski said after the narrow victory over Louisville. "No x’s and o’s. A couple weeks ago, there’s no way, I think we lose that game by 15 points because we wouldn’t be able to get there. They keep growing up and they keep playing hard. They earned it. I mean, it’s not something that was given to them."There are several elements to Duke’s success this season. The fact that this has largely been a six-man team means that all six have had to contribute. Certainly senior Marshall Plumlee has made a remarkable contribution for a guy who sat on the bench four years (counting his redshirt year). Matt Jones has been a steadying force – even with his ankle issues.But Duke is where Duke is because of two remarkable players.

One is freshman Brandon Ingram.

Back in January, when Duke won in Raleigh, N.C. State coach Mark Gottlieb told the media: "We played Ben Simmons earlier this season … tonight we played against the No. 1 pick in the draft."More and more draft experts are coming to that conclusion. Ingram, with his incredible length (a 7-foor-4 wing span), his ability to handle and his ability to shoot (41.4 percent from 3-point range), make him a dream NBA wing. Yeah, he needs to get stronger, but that will come with age.

After all, it’s all about potential in the NBA. But for Ingram at Duke, it’s all about actual production – and Ingram has produced for the Blue Devils.His numbers are impressive. Just two freshmen have ever scored more points for the Blue Devils (Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor) than Ingram’s 600 this season. His scoring average of 17.1 ppg is tied with Gene Banks as the third best for a freshman in Duke history. On top of that, Ingram is the team’s No. 2 rebounder and he’s No. 4 in assists.

Duke has had a remarkable run of one-and-done players – from Kyrie Irving to Austin Rivers to Jabari Parker to last year’s trio of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. Ingram certainly belongs on that list.Amazing to remember how he struggled back in November, isn’t it?

"He's continued to get better," Krzyzewski said. "He works all the time, and we work with him. We try to put him in situations where he can use his instincts. He’ll go and shoot on his own. I said, ‘Don’t just shoot.’ I said, like, ‘Try to create a shot, like you’re good enough to create shots. And then if you hit them, someone is going to say that I taught you that.’"He’s gotten better and better. He deserves that. He’s not a plant that should be put in a jar. He’s a plant that should be allowed to grow, and he’s growing immensely."But as good as Ingram has been, the best player on the team has been sophomore Grayson Allen.

I wonder if Duke fans understand just how good a season that Allen is having?

Just take scoring alone – his 764 points (so far) are tied for the ninth best single-season total in Duke history. If he can match Saturday’s 29-point effort his next time out, he will climb past Christian Laettner’s best year and the senior years of Shane Battier, Danny Ferry and Dick Groat into fifth place on the school’s single-season scoring list.More remarkably, Allen is doing it as a sophomore.

Just one underclassman in Duke history has scored more points (sophomore Jason Williams in 2001) and Allen actually has a better scoring average (21.9) than Williams did that season (21.6). There is a sophomore with a better scoring average – Art Heyman averaged 25.3 in 1961.

Of course, if it were just scoring, that would be one thing. But Allen is also on pace to become just the ninth player in Duke history to lead the team in scoring and assists. He also leads the team in steals. He’s rebounding better than all but a handful of guards in Duke history. And his shooting percentages are solid – both from the field, the 3-point line and the foul line.

And Allen has had to accomplish those things while enduring an ESPN-orchestrated lynching that has made him the most hated player in college basketball (just a note, did you all notice the headline in the Boston Herald last week when Duke arrived in Providence: "Duke and the Hated Grayson Allen arrive in New England.").

I’m not sure that Duke has had a pair of offensive players so potent since Heyman (another hated and abused Duke player) and Jeff Mullins in 1962-63. Oh there have been some great inside-out combos – J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams come to mind – and some other strong scoring combinations (Jason Williams and Shane Battier in 2001; Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler in 2010) but can any of you remember two guys who can each create shots for themselves the way Ingram and Allen have been able to do?

You might also throw in Luke Kennard, whose freshman season has been overshadowed by Ingram’s brilliance and his own slow start as a shooter.

But don’t underestimate his freshman season – Kennard’s 11.8 ppg is a higher freshman number than such Duke greats as Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Danny Ferry, Trajan Langdon or Mike Dunleavy. And, we’ve seen that he’s more than a pure scorer – he can also put the ball on the floor and create.

Indeed, the offensive skills of those three players – Allen, Ingram and Kennard – is the strength of this Duke team. If Jefferson was there to provide the rebounding help and interior defensive presence that this team lacks, there would be no limit to its potential.

But that’s not who this team is. Jefferson is not there and Coach K will have to keep playing with six players, plus a gradually increasing contribution from seventh man Chase Jeter. Will that be enough to win two more NCAA games in Anaheim and get this team to Houston?I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that whatever happens later this week, this Duke team has been one of the special teams in the K era because of the problems and weaknesses it has overcome.

Sweet 16? 25 wins?

On the surface, not especially significant accomplishments for a Duke basketball team.

But in context, this Duke team has accomplished more than most Blue Devil squads.