Sometimes a bit of perspective is useful.
After Duke’s loss to Virginia Tech, people are more than happy to offer Duke free advice, just as they’ve been willing to offer Zion Williamson free advice after his shoe mishap.
But let’s consider where Duke is.
First, Duke lost to Gonzaga, an older and more experienced team, in the first month of the season.
Second, Duke lost to Syracuse without Tre Jones for most of the game.
Third, Duke lost to UNC without Williamson for all but 30 seconds.
Finally, Duke lost to Virginia Tech on the road without Williamson and, as it turns out, with Barrett sick but still doing his best.
The record is what the record is but if we might make a few points of order...
If Duke played Gonzaga today it wouldn’t be the same game. Duke is much more ready (assuming full health that is). Remember a lot of people criticized RJ Barrett for trying repeatedly to score at the end? Think he would do that now? Obviously not.
Before Jones got hurt against Syracuse he was singlehandedly destroying that team on defense. It was spine tingling, a prodigious, dominant performance.
Duke lost to UNC 88-72 and UNC indeed played very well. But we’d like to make a simple proposition and while it’s pointlessly hypothetical it’s hard to disagree with: if Williamson played you could take 15 from Luke Maye and give it to Williamson.
That would work out to 87-73. It wouldn't work that way of course, any more than four missed free throws would automatically have given Duke a two-point win over Gonzaga. If we’ve learned anything from bad science fiction it’s that you can’t time travel and change just one thing. There is a ripple effect. But with Williamson playing, UNC wouldn't have won by 16 and Maye would not have scored 30 with Williamson on him.
We’re not even arguing UNC would have lost, just that things would have been quite different and Duke might well have won (if you listen to the Jeff Goodman interview with Williamson’s high school coach you’ll get an idea of just how pumped Williamson was for that game and how crushed he must have been to have been forced to leave it. He would have been a huge factor).
We were certainly impressed with the job that Virginia Tech did on Barrett in the first half but we didn’t realize that he was sick. Despite consistent double teams, he still managed to play well in the second half. He did have five turnovers and that’s probably down to being ill. Virginia Tech played him hard and well, but he wasn’t at his best and fatigue showed in some of his passes.
On the bright side, over the last several games we’ve seen Marques Bolden, Alex O’ Connell, Javin DeLaurier and Jordan Goldwire play well. Duke decided to use Joey Baker rather than redshirt him. Baker is a gifted shooter, but that was made largely because he has improved a great deal and the staff believed he can contribute now. If he can hit a few threes, Duke will be much, much better off.
The bottom line is this: without Jones, Duke beat a #1 seed in Virginia. Without Williamson, Duke beat a very tough Syracuse and its 2-3 zone on the road. Without Williamson and with a sick Barrett, they still nearly beat a ranked Virginia Tech team on the road.
Over the years, we’ve watched Mike Krzyzewski tinker with his teams and make adjustments and tweaks, and usually they’ve paid off.
This year, he’s had some adversity, but he has a young team that lacked experience almost everywhere.
A lot of those guys are getting that experience now and we see tangible improvements from the reserves.
When Williamson is back and Barrett is fully healthy, Duke will benefit from the lessons they have learned lately.
In the meantime, we have to listen to a lot of nonsense about how tough things are. Losing four games is not tough. It’s unfortunate but it’s not a nightmare (try the Miller brothers if you want a 2019 basketball nightmare - both Sean and Archie have had trainwreck seasons).
Duke wraps up with Miami and Wake Forest at home then a trip to Chapel Hill. We’ll see how things finish.