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Jim On Duke In The Maui Classic

Learning curve? Yep. Lessons learned? Time will tell.

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Maui Invitational - Duke v Gonzaga
LAHAINA, HI - NOVEMBER 21: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils clinches his fist and lets out a yell after dunking the ball during the second half of the game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Lahaina Civic Center on November 21, 2018 in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

Going undefeated was never a realistic option for this Duke team. There’s a reason why it hasn’t been done since 1976. It’s very, very difficult.

And Duke was taking a team starting four freshmen 4,700 miles from home to play three games in three days against a loaded Maui Classic field, a task that would challenge the concentration levels of any group of teenagers.

Mike Krzyzewski said as much after Duke’s 89-87 loss to Gonzaga.

“They started out that way [sharp], where I thought we looked young. It’s not that we were tired, because we both played the same amount of games, but I thought emotionally they were more ready than we were. And that’s something that you learn. You have to learn that by being in these situations. We were ready to play but we weren’t as emotionally ready to play as we needed to be.”

Tournaments like Maui present an unusual challenge. Eight teams, four games per day, everybody plays three games. If you think you’re bummed, imagine being a fan of the Fighting Illini of Illinois, who went to Maui 1-1 and came back 1-4.

Tropical Paradise, indeed.

So, there’s not much time to fret over a loss or rest on your laurels following a win. Duke cruised to a 90-64 win over San Diego State in their opener, looking every bit like the unstoppable behemoth they were touted to be.

Before you could say “nice game Jack White,” Auburn was up next, a legit, top-10 team based on what we saw. And Auburn pushed Duke harder than anyone had pushed Duke up to that point, cutting a double-digit lead to a two-possession lead several times in the second half.

And Duke responded to every challenge.

“That was a heck of a win for us,” Krzyzewski said. “To play this level of game at this time of the year is amazing for us.”

An amazing win in mid-November.

And Duke had to turn around and do it all over again, less than 24 hours later.

Of course, so did Gonzaga, a team perhaps marginally less talented than Duke but a team with significantly more experience. Remember, some of these guys played for the national championship barely 18 months ago.

Talent? Check. Veterans? Check. Big-game experience? Check.

Gonzaga’s 0-3 record against Duke no doubt added another box to be checked.

Much of the post-game commentary from the Duke fan base has centered on offense, Tre Jones’s missed dunk and the end-of-game woes when the game was on the line.

Maybe Duke runs a different set next time.

Or maybe they run the same set and do it better.

That’s part of the learning curve.

But if you had told me going into the game that Duke would score 87 points, I would have been pretty certain that Duke would have been adding another trophy to the bulging trophy case.

Duke likely lost the game on the defensive side of the equation, the latter part of the first half and the beginning of the second, when the Zags built a 16-point lead.

Some of Gonzaga’s shots were pretty high on the degree-of-difficulty scale. But a lot of them were pretty easy shots, as Duke consistently missed on the kind of defensive rotations that veteran teams handle.

Freshmen and defense.

We’ve been down that road before. Can the kids learn to play championship-level defense before the season-clock hits zero?


Duke could have folded their tents and gone home. But the Blue Devils kept pushing the boulder up the hill, getting even but never taking the lead.


Jones says he thinks Duke learned its lessons.

“I feel we just got to playing how we know we can play, the way that the coaches want us to play and the way that us players know that we can play and want to play as well. Like coach said, emotionally early on we weren’t ready to play. But within those last 14 minutes we all kept trying to pick each other either up. And guys were picking me up and I was trying to pick other guys up. And we all came together and started fighting together rather than just by ourselves.”

If that’s a lesson learned and absorbed, then consider it a valuable lesson, one that hopefully should pay dividends as winter turns to spring.

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