What went wrong with Duke
Posted March 24
Something was missing.
The Duke Blue Devils' season disintegrated Friday afternoon amid a game-deciding 20-8 closing run by Mercer.
Ron Mercer, the former Kentucky star? No, it can't be him, he's long out of eligibility, even for Kentucky. What's a "Mercer"?
Mercer is the champion of the Atlantic Sun, the same league that gave us Florida Gulf Coast a year ago, and the Bears proved to be a much more mentally tough team than the Blue Devils. That's who Mercer was on Friday.
Duke lost nine games in the 2013-14 season, and in eight of them, they completely melted down at some point in the second half. There were a host of issues that led to the demise of Duke's season, but none more important than the Devils inability to dig down deep enough to find the resolve to fight. It was, without a doubt, the least mentally tough team I've covered in 16 seasons. Here are the facts:
94-83 loss to Kansas: Game tied at 79 with 3:12 left; Jayhawks score on their final eight possessions and close with 15-4 run.
72-66 loss to Arizona: Duke leads 43-37 with 13:51 left; Wildcats score 24 of next 32 points over 9:51.
79-77 loss at Notre Dame: Duke leads by 10 with 11:39 to play; Irish outscore Devils 20-4 over next 7:22.
72-59 loss at Clemson: Duke leads 40-31 after first possession of the second half before Tigers outscore Blue Devils 41-19 the rest of the way.
74-66 loss at North Carolina: Duke leads 51-40 five minutes into the second half; Tar Heels respond with 35-15 run to end the game, scoring on 12 of their final 13 possessions.
82-72 loss at Wake Forest: Duke leads by seven with 5:45 to play; Deacons close with 23-6 run, scoring on all but one of their final 13 possessions.
72-63 loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament final: Game tied at 51 with 6:34 left; Cavaliers pull away with 21-12 closing stretch.
78-71 loss to Mercer in the NCAA Tournament: Duke has 63-58 lead with 3:10 to play before the Bears showed more grit than the Devils and moved on to the third round.
So, how did this all happen? How did Duke go from preseason Final Four candidate to postseason patsy and round of 64 upset victim? Well, the shiny object is the presence of Jabari Parker, the freshman phenom who is likely going to be selected within the first 15 minutes of the NBA Draft in a few months. It must be the one-year wonders who have caused yet another earlier-than-expected Duke exit from the NCAA Tournament. The facts are that in three of the last four years, Duke has had a one-hit wonder for a lead player and the results are Sweet 16 loss – Lehigh and Mercer.
But, the presence of Parker and Rodney Hood, who is also very likely to enter his name in the draft pool, is only the surface problem. The issue for this team was really in the other players, and this is where Duke's real problem resided. Parker and Hood were Duke's two best players, their two best scorers, and Hood was their best defender. Let's be honest, those two players are not the reason why Duke's season came crashing down.
Every great team has upperclassmen – or, at the very least, experienced players – who act as on-court leaders. Who filled that role for Duke? Quinn Cook, the junior point guard, who by this point in his career should have easily been a calming influence on the team, was unable to be that steadying hand because of his own up-and-down season. Cook has always been sort of an emotional roller coaster, and this season was no different. Rasheed Sulaimon, the runner-up for league rookie of the year honors a season ago, started the season poorly before rallying himself back into a vital, starting position. But he also suffered from on-court emotional issues and when things weren't going well for him personally, he found it hard to keep it together.
Those two players represented Duke's two best guards. And, while the sport of basketball is enamored with big men, like Shaq and Dwight and Wilt and Kareem, it's really a game of little guys. Guards have the ball, it's their job to get it to the right players in the correct places on the court. They run the offense, set the tone on defense, and it's their responsibility to show toughness and leadership. Both players struggled, to say the least, in those areas.
That's not to blame those two for the loss to Mercer. Cook and Sulaimon combined for 43 points which featured a 12-for-22 shooting display from behind the 3-point line.
The real blame sits squarely on the shoulders of Duke's worst defensive team in the Mike Krzyzewski era. The Blue Devils ranked near the bottom in three very key defensive metrics: points per possession (10th in the ACC/135 nationally), effective field goal percentage (13th/169th) and overall defensive efficiency (10th/141st). All of that can easily be understood by returning to the aforementioned list of eight losses this year. In each case it was a defense that was unable to stop the bleeding.
But, the poor defense was the result of a line up that was built to score. When that was happening, Duke was as good as any team in the country. When it stopped, the Devils were vulnerable to just about anyone. Coach K said that several times during the year.
Following the Virginia win back in January, Krzyzewski also said to judge the team from "this point forward". In that game, K unveiled the hockey-style line changes, playing 10 and sometimes 11 different players during the game. Marshall Plumlee emerged as a player who could provide defensive energy, rebounding and sorely needed size around the basket, as evidenced by his 19-minute, shot-in-the-arm performance in the home win over Syracuse.
Yet, by the end of the year, the 10-player rotation had been pared back to effectively six. Plumlee played just three minutes in the closing loss, capping a five game stretch to end the season in which he failed to register a point and pulled down a total of six rebounds. Plumlee didn't need to be great. But, he needed to be, if for no other reason than to take the weight off of Parker to be Duke's only down-low presence.
As for the freshman and one-year element, it would be foolish to ignore the issue. However, it's far too complex to address at the end of this already-too-long dissertation. Let's just say it this way, if you have the right mix of players with talent and experience, the one-hit wonders will fit in nicely. Duke's 2011 team with Kyrie Irving would have likely been fine had Irving not suffered the foot injury early in the season. Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler were crusty vets -- to borrow a favorite Jim Grobe-ism -- and Irving was a confident floor-leader, not to mention their best player. Incidentally, with four highly-touted recruits coming in, we're likely looking at a similar situation next year. It will be most interesting to see how it shakes out, again.
This year's Blue Devils were offensively potent, defensively challenged and emotionally charged -- in both positive and negative ways. In the end, it was a lethal combination that ultimately caused their own destruction. Whether or not it gets better next season is another conversation for another time.