So far, this has been a tough season to be a Duke basketball fan.
The Blue Devils, the consensus preseason No. 1 team, seemed to be poised for a historic season. But everything that could go wrong – and a few that couldn’t – has gone wrong. Injuries, the whole Grayson Allen imbroglio, the loss of Coach K, more injuries … it’s been tough.
There is still a reasonable chance that in the last two months of the season, Duke can overcome its injuries, put all its talent on the floor – healthy -- at the same time, get Coach K back on the bench and Allen can spit in the eye of all his critics (I mean that figuratively, not literally – if he were to actually spit at anybody, I can’t imagine the firestorm that would generate).
Of course, there is also a chance that this team will never achieve its immense potential.
We don’t know the extent of Amile Jefferson’s injury, but we do know that without him, Duke will never be the team we envisioned. Harry Giles is still slowly regaining his mobility and has only scratched the surface of his talent. How much more can he access before the season reaches its championship climax? Marques Bolden is still hobbled by a bad foot (injury unspecified) which limits his mobility and his bounce off the floor. Will he recover in time to become the player we saw in preseason?
Most of all, will this team ever get the continuity it needs to begin functioning smoothly on offense and defense?
How you view the future depends on whether you are an optimist of a pessimist.
Personally, after more than 30 years of watching Mike Krzyzewski work his magic, I’m an optimist when it comes to Duke basketball. That’s not to say that he always maximizes the potential of each of his teams, but I think he succeeds far, FAR more often than he fails. Certainly, he succeeds more often than any other coach in his era.
Before the 2016-17 opener, I tried to look ahead at the season to come. I wrote:
As consistently as K’s teams start strong, they almost as consistently hit a little bump in the road in January. The 2015 national champs lost back-to-back games to N.C. State and Miami (in Cameron!). The 2010 national champs lost to Georgia Tech and N.C. State in a 12-day span in early January. Even the veteran 2013 team, that played so well in November and December (15-0 to start), lost two of three games in mid-January (although that “slump” was in large part due to the injury to Ryan Kelly).
Still, it often seems like freshmen hit some kind of wall in mid-January. I wouldn’t expect this team to slump in mid-January (barring catastrophic injuries), but I do expect a loss or two.
Well, if this team hasn’t suffered catastrophic injuries, then I don’t know what the term means. But let’s examine the recent past a little more closely.
Duke actually seemed to handle its injury issues well to start the season. Despite the early absence of Giles, Jayson Tatum and Bolden – plus injuries that limited and hampered Allen and Frank Jackson – the Devils rolled to a 9-1 start. The only loss was on a buzzer-beating game-winner by Kansas and the wins included solid victories over the likes of Michigan State, Florida, Rhode Island and Penn State.
That stretch ended with an impressive 94-55 victory over a weak UNLV team in Las Vegas. Tatum was back and playing very well and the rumors were that Giles was ready to make his debut.
The highly touted freshman did appear briefly in the next game – a post-exam matchup with Tennessee State in Cameron. But that was not the story. The team that had been so solid in the season’s first month, stumbled to a lackluster 10-point win over a lackluster opponent. And that was followed by an equally unimpressive 11-point win over lightweight Elon in Greensboro.
As bad as Duke looked against the Phoenix, that was not the story line coming out of that game. Instead, it was the national hysteria over Allen’s third career tripping incident.
While I think that the hysteria was overdone, criticism was warranted. And Allen’s third transgression certainly deserved a suspension.
Just a moment to digress. While I understand the initial wave of criticism – and even the national debate as to whether Allen deserved a longer suspension – the continued post-suspension focus on Allen has moved from the outrageous to the despicable. ESPN’s attempt to generate new controversy with the slow-motion breakdowns of the screening collision in the Boston College game and his collision with the FSU assistant coach while scrambling for a loose ball are ridiculous. And the response to the blows to his face that Allen suffered in the Louisville game – one ESPN columnist essentially said that he deserved everything he got – was disgusting.
But journalistic ethics aside (and as a long-time journalist I will argue that those two words are not an oxymoron), the question remains: How much has the Allen controversy hurt Duke’s best player and how much has it hurt the team?
In one very tangible sense, it clearly hurt the team. Allen was suspended for Duke’s ACC opener at Virginia Tech and in his absence, the Devils played poorly and were never in the game with a good, but not great Hokie team.
That was three disturbing performances in a row.
But everything changed five days later, when Duke faced Georgia Tech in Durham.
The Jackets were coming off a homecourt upset of UNC, but never had a chance against the red-hot Devils. Coach K, in his last game before taking a leave of absence for back surgery, revamped his lineup – he started Giles and had Allen playing more of a point guard role.
The result was beautiful to watch as Duke put up 110 points and won by 53 points – the most lopsided margin for any ACC game 52 years.
THAT was the Duke team we all dreamed of seeing this season.
Krzyzewski proclaimed the performance a new start for his young team.
“We played more like we practiced and we’ve been able to practice,” he said. “The group is more like what we wanted to do since October but we’re doing it now in January. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to postpone my surgery for a few days, to move to this point to get us moving the right way where Grayson could be at point, Frank also … the two of them together. Get Harry in the starting lineup. Try to get seven or eight guys in a rotation where they know, where seven or eight of them feel like they’re starters. Stuff we would’ve done in our first or second exhibition games if we had them but we didn’t have them so this is where we’re at.”
So Jan. 4 became Oct. 15 – but there was still plenty of time for this team to gel – not only for postseason, but for a run at the ACC regular season title.
All that good feeling … all that optimism lasted until late in the first half of the next game. Duke was continuing to roll – up 53-28 on Boston College when Amile Jefferson limped to the bench with what was later diagnosed as a bone bruise.
Boston College outscored Duke 54-40 the rest of the way. Not enough to win, but enough to suggest that the Devils are not the same team without their fifth-year senior co-captain.
Indeed, the absence of Jefferson was even more evident in Duke’s subsequent losses at Florida State and at Louisville.
So that’s where Duke stands now – 14-4 (2-3 ACC) and struggling to find a winning combination without Jefferson in the middle.
Luckily, Duke gets a week off before facing Miami in Cameron.
Is that enough time to fix the problems that are ailing the Devils?
Frankly, I don’t know. Is that enough time for Jefferson to get healthy? Is that enough time for Krzyzewski to return to the bench? Will a week of practice enable the Duke staff – whether headed by Jeff Capel or Coach K – come up with something that helps?
As I say, I can’t answer those questions.
But allow me to make two observations:
-- Duke’s problems are acerbated by the strength of the ACC this season. Even the league’s patsies (Boston College and Georgia Tech) are dangerous at home – a combined 4-1 with wins over UNC, Syracuse, Clemson and N.C. State.
The league has never been deeper. Duke has 13 games remaining in the regular season. Ten of those 13 are against top 50 RPI teams. Two more are against top 100 RPI teams (actually both are against No. 69 Wake Forest). The only exception is a game at No. 129 Syracuse.
Yes, Duke was staggered by the loss of Jefferson, but even with him, there would be no guarantees at No. 9 Florida State or at No. 14 Louisville. Actually, I think the Devils played fairly well at Louisville – not much worse than Kentucky did in a December loss to the Cardinals.
There are no gimmies ahead … well, maybe Wake Forest’s Feb. 18 visit to Cameron, but the Jan. 28 trip to Lawrence Joel will be a competitive game.
-- The question is whether Duke can get better.
As I said, I’m an optimistic when it comes to Duke basketball, because I’ve seen it happen – over and over.
Go back to 1997, when Duke stumbled through the first part of the ACC schedule with losses to Maryland, Clemson and Wake Forest (at home). Coach K benched erratic center Greg Newton, expanded the role of freshman Chris Carrawell and won eight of the team’s last nine ACC games to win the regular season title.
Then there was 2005 team that lost back-to-back road games at Maryland and Virginia Tech in mid-February. Krzyzewski thought his team lacked toughness, so the next time out – against No. 5 Wake Forest -- he started three walk-ons: Patrick Davidson, Patrick Johnson and Reggie Love. They set the tone as Duke upset the Deacs and won nine of their next 10 games, including the ACC championship.
In 2009, everything seemed to be falling apart as Duke lost four of six games in early February, including a horrific offensive meltdown at Clemson. K responded by benching point guard Nolan Smith, moving Jon Scheyer to the point and starting freshman Elliot Williams. Duke won 10 of its next 11 games, including another ACC championship.
In 2010, he turned a good Duke team into a national championship team by inserting big man Brian Zoubek into the starting lineup in early February and slowing the team’s tempo. The 2014 team seemed to be in trouble after losing two of its first three ACC games. But Krzyzewski instituted a platoon system that seemed to bring life to a struggling team and Duke responded by winning nine of its next 10 games.
And we all remember 2015, when Duke lost back-to-back ACC games in early January as the defense suffered a major meltdown. Coach K responded by replacing his beloved man-to-man defense with a zone, which gave his talented young team time to learn the man-to-man defense for its national title run.
A year ago, the change was more subtle. Duke lost three in a row (and four of five) in January, when K missed a game with a suspected heart issue. Interim coach Jeff Capel won that game at Georgia Tech, sparking a five game winning streak that included victories over No. 13 Louisville, No. 7 Georgia Tech and No. 5 UNC – in Chapel Hill.
At that point, Matt Jones was hurt and while he missed just one game, he was hobbled the rest of the year. That team didn’t have much margin for error and with one of its key pieces less than full speed, Duke was 5-5 down the stretch.
And that’s the dilemma facing Krzyzewski (or Capel, until Coach K’s return) this season. Let Jefferson return at or near full speed and I have no doubt that the Duke staff will get this team on track. Without him – or with some other significant injury – and it’s going to be tough for this team to survive, much less prosper.
But it’s still too early to give up on this team (as many DBR posters seem to have done). This team could still win the national championship.
It just needs to get healthy in time to get some practice/game time under its belt.
The chances of that happening are declining as the season wears on and Duke struggles to overcome its issues, but it’s not too late for things to start falling in place.
I think this Saturday’s home game with Miami will be the start of a significant stretch. It’s a game Duke needs to win, followed by a home game with N.C. State that is equally important … followed by a road game at Wake Forest that is probably the most winnable road game left on the schedule.
After that stretch, it gets tough again – at Notre Dame; Pitt at home; UNC at home, followed 48 hours later by a visit from Clemson, then a trip to Virginia.
Wow … that’s not going to be easy.
The juggernaut we all envisioned before the season could handle it. The struggling, crippled team we’ve seen in recent weeks won’t be able to.
So the next few weeks are all about Duke. Can the players and staff get healthy and begin to put the team – the REAL team – together.
Krzyzewski once thought that the Jab. 4 win over Georgia Tech was October 15th for this Duke team. Now he has to punch the re-set button again.
Maybe Miami’s visit Saturday night will be the new Oct. 15 moment for this team.