Mike Krzyzewski is considered not only one of the greatest basketball coaches in the history of the game but also as one of the best leaders. He’s even written five books about how to build and lead a team.
His 2011-2012 Duke basketball team, however, was lacking of anyone that shared that characteristic and that ultimately was the team’s downfall as they lost to No. 15-seeded Lehigh and failed to advance in the NCAA tournament.
There are a number of pure basketball reasons why the team struggled this season—poor free throw shooting, reliance on three-point shots and bad defense—but not one player stepped up to be the man, to be courageous and clutch during crunch time, to inspire his teammates and to push the rest of the team to give maximum effort.
In most cases, leadership is developed throughout the years and displayed by the upperclassmen. Throughout Coach K’s tenure at Duke he’s had the luxury of most of his players staying all four years of their eligibility rather than go to the NBA.
Prior to this season, Duke had advanced past the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in all but one of the past 15 seasons (2006-2007). Looking back at that roster, which was a 22-win team by the way, there was only one senior and one junior. Six of the 14 players on the roster were freshmen.
There was a considerable lack of experience on the team and it ended its season losing its final four games (its second four-game losing streak of the season).
It’s similar to how this year’s team lost three of its final four games.
In 2011-12, there was a bit more experience, but there was only one senior, Miles Plumlee. On most nights he was the team’s most intense player, but he was featured as a substitute more times than not and did not get the rest of his teammates to match his effort.
Think of some of the best Duke teams of the decade and you will remember them having some fantastic college seniors: Shane Battier, Chris Duhon, J.J. Redick, Sheldon Williams, Jon Scheyer, Greg Paulus, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. This type of talented leader was absent from the team this year.
There also was the lack of a true point guard. Gone were Jay Williams, Duhon, Scheyer, Paulus, Smith and Kyrie Irving. The team relied on Seth Curry and Austin Rivers to run the offense, but neither was up to task.
Curry is a shooter. Handling the ball is not one of his strengths. He spent his playing time off the ball last year but was shifted to the point position before the season started.
“It's different. I'm used to just worrying about myself,” he told CBS Sports at the beginning of the season. “Now I've got to get everyone involved in the offense. I can't just worry about myself.
Most point guards are judged by their assist-to-turnover ratio. Curry’s was not good; he averaged one turnover for every 1.2 assists he dished out. He was unable to control the tempo of the game and couldn’t hold onto the ball during big moments.
Rivers didn’t fare much better.
The freshman showed some fearlessness and stepped up to the occasion here and there, most notably in the first matchup against North Carolina when he hit a buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer. He was a bit overconfident though and that affected his play.
Rivers handled the ball a lot but his biggest failure was in getting his teammates involved. More times than not, when Rivers got the ball at the top of the key he either held the ball and threw up an ill-advised jumper or put his head down and drove down the lane. He was the team’s leading scorer but he made the offense stagnant and predictable.
He also averaged more turnovers (2.3) than assists (2.1).
It seemed as if on some nights, this Duke team was waiting for the great players in the past to come into the game and take over. Aside from Rivers in the first UNC game, no one stepped up to hit big shots. It seemed like the team was just unsure about itself.
With one more season maybe Curry gets a better handle on the position. And if Rivers comes back for another season maybe his confidence is harnessed and the extra experience makes him a better team player. But this season neither stepped up as a point guard or a leader.
The talent on the team needs to improve, as does the effort put forth by every player. A team lacking leadership and heart is always susceptible to an upset from a team with nothing to lose.
That’s what happened when Duke went up against Lehigh.
Not all hope is lost however. Three freshman on that ’06-’07 team were Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas.
All three played pivotal roles and were leaders three seasons later on the 2009-2010 NCAA championship team.