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Looking For Continuity

Where do things stand for Duke now in this most unusual season?

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Georgia Tech v Duke
DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 04: Associate head coach Jeff Capel of the Duke Blue Devils reacts during their game against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 4, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 110-57.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Duke’s performance Wednesday night against Georgia Tech was one for the ages.

It was the fifth largest margin of victory in an ACC game – the largest since Duke beat Virginia 136-72 in 1965.

“I don’t know if anybody in the country could have beaten them tonight,” shellshocked Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner kept repeating in his postgame press conference.

But before Blue Devil fans get too ecstatic, just recall that we’ve seen this before … this season. Duke followed a solid win over Florida (probably the second-best team in the SEC) with a lopsided 94-55 victory over UNLV in Los Vegas. It certainly looked like the Devils – slowed by injury earlier in the season -- had found their mojo.

We know what happened next – two desultory performances in wins over Tennessee State and Elon, followed by a decisive loss to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. On top of the injury woes was a new drama – Grayson Allen’s suspension. Then the news earlier this week that Coach Mike Krzyzewski was taking a leave of absence to get back surgery.

Shades of 1995, anyone?

Obviously not – in Coach K’s last game before his 1995 departure, his Blue Devils were upset in Cameron by a bad Clemson team (picked ninth and last in the preseason ACC polls). On this occasion, Coach K’s departure game was a historic beatdown of Georgia Tech. Are the Jackets a bad team? They were picked 14th in the 15-team ACC in the media’s preseason poll, but Pastner’s young team were good enough to upset UNC in their ACC opener.

Either way, Krzyzewski leaves the team in much better shape than in 1995. And that comparison was very much on his mind as he scheduled his surgery.

“The group we had tonight is more what we wanted to do in October and we’re now in January,” he said. “That’s one of the reason I wanted to postpone my surgery a few days – to move to this point, where we’re moving in the right way -- where Grayson [Allen] would be at point … where Harry [Giles] is in the starting lineup … where we’re trying to get seven or eight guys in the rotation … stuff that we would have done in our first or second exhibition game.”

There are three other major differences between 1995 and 2017:

(1) The program has changed. Jeff Capel, a sophomore guard on that 1995 team, sees a big difference in the two situations.

“I didn’t think there was a plan [in 1995],” he said Thursday. “At the time, Coach K did everything himself. That changed the next season. Now, he delegates a lot. He’s still the leader, but ne no longer tries to do everything himself.”

(2) When Coach K left the team in 1995, he was incommunicado for more than a month. The three coaches left behind – Mike Brey, Tommy Amaker and interim head coach Pete Gaudet were on their own. Krzyzewski confirmed Wednesday night that on this occasion, he will be watching tape and talking to the coaches (and players?) almost every day.

While interim head coach Jeff Capel and his staff (which will temporarily include Nolan Smith, who will be promoted to assistant coach in K’s absence) will handle the day-to-day details and the game management, K will still have his guiding hand on the team and the program.

(3) This absence will be limited, whereas the ’95 absence was for the rest of the season. Interesting that Duke’s release announcing Coach K’s LOA used the term “up to four weeks”. Subsequently, almost every news release I’ve seen has reported that he will miss four weeks or even “at least” four weeks. But during a phone interview Thursday, Capel used the term “a couple of weeks” when referring to Krzyzewski’s absence.

Coach K made it clear Wednesday night that he WILL be back this season. And while he can’t pinpoint the time, he made it sound like it will be sooner than later.

A reporter asked if the Duke coach had any doubts about his ability to come back this season.

“No, no,” Krzyzewski answered – quickly and emphatically. Then he added, “I won’t be in a hurry to come back until I’m ready. I made that mistake in my younger days and I’m too old to renew that mistake. I do feel confident about the direction we’re going and I obviously feel very confident in my staff.

“I’ll be back.”

But what will he return to? The juggernaut that crushed Georgia Tech? Or the confused, frustrated team that we saw just before and after Christmas break?

That’s the question confronting this team.

Obviously, Duke is not going to make nine of its first 13 3-pointers very often (or hit 16 of 31 for the game), but the Devils do have a lot of room for improvement – on defense as a team and individually from the freshmen, especially Giles, who first flashed a glimpse of his tremendous upside against the Jackets.

Luke Kennard, who was Duke’s best player in November and December, put the Georgia Tech game into proper prospective.

“We want to build off of this and keep playing well from now on,” he said.

Keep in mind, this is a Duke team that has lost a total of 30 games from its rotation players to injury (and a 31st to Allen’s suspension). That doesn’t count the four games freshman Javin DeLaurier has missed with his foot in a boot or the 15 games that Sean Obi has missed -- sitting on the bench in street clothes. It doesn’t count the games that Allen played hobbled with a bad toe (unable to practice) or the games where freshman Frank Jackson was clearly limited by the ankle injury that officially sidelined him just one game.

It does include 11 games for Harry Giles, eight games for both Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden and single games for Grayson Allen (plus the one for suspension), Frank Jackson and Chase Jeter.

Is it any wonder that this group has struggled for continuity? That’s what showed up last Saturday at Virginia Tech.

“Saturday, we were awful and I was awful,” Krzyzewski said. “It was one of those moments in time you might as well flush it. But also it was the end of us patch-working – who’s healthy, who’s not? Do we have enough guys to play?

“So now we have those guys and I said, ‘Let’s start.’ Okay, it’s October 15.”

We saw the first results of that re-start against Georgia Tech.

“Our practices have been hard and the kids have responded,” Krzyzewski said. “We have the chance to get to know each other in roles that will be familiar.”

Krzyzewski noted that the increased depth – a function of the crippled players returning to the lineup – has to help. He noted that Luke Kennard and Matt Jones were playing almost 40 minutes a game. Indeed, before Wednesday night’s round of ACC games, Kennard was leading the ACC in minutes played, while Jones was fourth.

The Duke coach thought the extended minutes were especially tough on Jones, who entered the Georgia Tech game on a 3-of-25 slump from 3-point range. But playing just 19 minutes against the Jackets, Jones hit 4-of-7 3-pointers and had 14 points.

“I thought tonight helped [Matt Jones], he had his best game in about a month,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a good player. Sometimes they are asked to do a little bit more than they can do and then they forget what they can do.”

Obviously, it was a good night for Jones. But was it the start of something or just a good night? Will he return to the 40 percent 3-point accuracy that he displayed a year ago of revert to the same slumping shooter than he was before Wednesday night?

That is a question – like so many questions raised by Wednesday night’s glorious performance – that will be answered in the coming run of ACC games.

It starts Saturday, when Boston College visits Cameron (assuming they aren’t sidetracked by the blizzard that our local TV stations are gleefully predicting).

The Eagles are much like Georgia Tech – expected to be one of the ACC’s weakest teams. Jim Christian’s third BC team opened the ACC season with a stunning victory over Syracuse. Still, it’s a team Duke should beat at home – the only question is whether the Devils can beat them in the impressive manner they beat Georgia Tech … or will they look more like the team that muddled past Tennessee State and Elon?

After Boston College, things get tougher for interim coach Jeff Capel. His next two games are on the road – Jan. 10 at No. 12 Florida State, then Jan. 14 at No. 9 Louisville. After that killer road trip, he brings the Devils home for back to back games with Miami (remember what the ‘Canes did to Duke’s national champs in Cameron in 2015) and N.C. State. Then back to the road at Wake Forest and at Notre Dame.

“These will be tough games,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ll see how we grow.”

At that point, the calendar flips to February and we ought to be able to start looking for Coach K’s return – Feb. 4 vs. Pitt in Cameron? Or maybe UNC’s Feb. 9 visit to Durham?

Even then, the process of team-building will still be in progress. If this is Oct. 15, the North Carolina visit ought to be the equivalent of the season opener.

I think that despite my reservations, Wednesday night was a major step forward. As K noted, Wednesday night was the first time we saw the real shape of this team:

-- Grayson Allen (healthy for a change) playing point and functioning first as a distributor and second as a scorer … with Frank Jackson there to back him up at the point and share the load in the same backcourt at times.

-- An eight-man rotation, so that nobody is asked to play 40 minutes and the coaches have options on nights when one or two players are struggling.

-- And maybe most importantly, the first hints of emergence by Harry Giles. It’s easy to overlook or forget that he was long regarded as the No. 1 player in his class. Giles should be a great player, not just a good one.

“We see him in practice getting better, more comfortable … then [he has to get in] shape,” Krzyzewski said. “Harry was diving for loose balls and had a double-double. He doesn’t have the athleticism yet that he will. But he’s made really positive steps forward. I think he’s still a ways away from where he will be.

“Hopefully, that will happen while he’s at Duke.”

Giles still has an untapped upside. So do Tatum and Bolden. As a team, Duke’s defense remains a work in progress. And, don’t be surprised that as this team progresses, it suffers a few setbacks.

We’ll see where this team stands when Coach K returns. The slow start could end up costing the Devils a high NCAA Tournament seed. It could mean no ACC regular season title.

But those are small consideration if Duke gets to March in good shape, with K on the bench, with Giles (and Tatum) playing up to their abilities and with the Devils functioning as a team.

That’s the Duke team we all expected to see. I think most of us can live with not seeing that team in November or even in January. As long as it’s there in March.


As long as I’m talking about continuity, has anybody else seen the level of inconsistency that we’ve seen so far in the ACC?

At the moment, 10 of the 15 teams are 1-1 … and two more are 1-2.

And I’m not just talking about wins and losses, but the wide swings in performance.

Obviously Duke – with its terrible performance at Virginia Tech and its great performance against Georgia Tech – is just one example.

How about Virginia Tech – the Hokies were spectacular against Duke and lackluster in a lopsided loss to N.C. State.

Then there is the Pack – Mark Gottfried’s team slept-walked through a loss to Miami, then looked like Final Four contender in blitzing the Hokies.

Or Louisville – in the last four games, the Cards have beaten Kentucky, lost at home to Virginia, beaten Indiana on a neutral court, then lost at Notre Dame.

Or Virginia. The Cavs look like the best team in the league when they opened the ACC season with a solid win at Louisville. Then they come home and lose to Florida State. And follow that up with a loss at Pitt.

Georgia Tech and Boston College both opened the ACC season with stunning upset victories at home (over UNC and Syracuse, respectively), but were both bounced on the road the next time out – okay, BC’s 13-point loss at Wake Forest was not that surprising, but Georgia Tech’s horrid game at Duke is such a sharp contrast with the UNC performance.

North Carolina has certainly fluctuated between a team that Jay Bilas insisted was the best in the nation in November to the one that lost to Georgia Tech (and barely beat Tennessee).

There are at least a few ACC teams that have been consistent. Notre Dame has been solid every time out. Florida State has been getting better since its late collapse against Temple back in November. Even Pitt has followed an erratic start – including a loss to Duquesne and a two-overtime home escape from Eastern Michigan – with a strong stretch of games – even a one-point OT loss at Notre Dame is nothing to be ashamed of.

I suspect the race will settle down in a few games or at least a few weeks. But until it does, the nation’s strongest conference is also the most entertaining.

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