The Duke Blue Devils have lost a lot of NCAA tournament games. This is a sign of their success as they do hold a .748 winning percentage in the NCAA tournament, which is best in the NCAA, and they have won four NCAA Championships. Yet with all the championships and Final Fours, there is no way that Duke will ever live down the first-round loss to the Lehigh Mountain Hawks in this season's tournament.
It was only the sixth time in tournament history that a No. 15 seed managed to beat a No. 2 seed, and amazingly, the fifth one happened just hours earlier as No. 15 Norfolk State knocked off No. 2 Mizzou. But of those No. 2 seeds that had lost before, none of those teams have been anywhere as successful as Duke.
After all, Duke is one of the greatest college basketball programs ever and they were facing a Lehigh team that got into the tournament by winning the Patriot League. This was as big a mismatch as you could get in college basketball with the hoops powerhouse taking on the tiny mid-major that' is lucky to be there.
But somehow this most unlikely of upsets did happen and the Blue Devils got taken down by the Mountain Hawks. And as is natural when such losses happen, blame needs to be passed over to someone. It's a way of coping from these gut-wrenching losses. That is, by rationalizing that if only someone had done a better job than the outcome would have been different.
It may seem childish, but as a fan, it's one of those things that you almost have to do to cope. So after several days of trying to come to grips with the end of Duke's season, I've come up with someone to blame. That someone is Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
When a team succeeds, it is often the product of good leadership by a coach and his players. Consequently, when a team loses, the lack of good leadership is often one of the reasons.
That is what I think happened with Duke basketball, not only in this game, but during the entire 2011-2012 season. This year, Duke had no players step up and lead on the court, atypical of what a Coach K-led team has every year.
A lot of that had to do with the kind of team Duke had this year. This year's was an unusually young team with many of the star players being freshmen and sophomores. Amazingly, forward Miles Plumlee was the only senior on the team's roster this season.
Coach K knew of this glaring weakness and he even mentioned it in a radio interview during the season. But as much as Coach K is right about this, I can't help but wonder whose fault it is that none of Duke's players were able to step and lead the team. After all, this is what Coach K has done during his entire heading coaching career, and he has certainly done great things with less-talented Duke teams.
This leadership weakness was obviously one of the glaring problems this season, but it was not the only one. The lack of a true point guard was just as crippling. The entire season, Duke fans were made to believe that either Seth Curry or Austin Rivers was to become the point guard, but that never happened.
Curry failed to fill that role because he is a shooter and not a ball handler. Therefore, he struggled switching to the point position before the season started. For Curry to succeed, it would be more optimal if he could be in a system where he is playing off the ball and is his team's top scoring threat.
There is perhaps some hope that Curry could return to this role next year with the imminent departure of Austin Rivers. Honestly this could potentially be one of the silver linings from the loss for Duke fans. Although Rivers had lots of confidence and came through in the clutch several times, he still made plenty of ill-advised plays that ended up costing the team.
Rivers had a tendency to hog the ball, especially in the waning minutes of a game. This made Duke's offense pathetically predictable. Other teams knew that in order to stop the Blue Devils, all they really needed to do was to shut down Rivers.
Rivers will now get the chance to pursue his NBA career, and Duke will be forced to move on. Coach K may actually be grateful for this as he can now find a way to utilize a less selfish player to take Rivers' place. Rivers' departure could also improve Duke's defense as Rivers was sloppy and careless on defense, something that was finally exposed by C.J. McCollum in their tournament loss.
Although Coach K can't be directly blamed for both players disappointing seasons, he is at least partially responsible. He also needs to realize the danger of one-and-done type players like Rivers. Nearly all of Duke's successful teams were built on years of having players plugged into a system. Having a player for only one year, no matter how good he is, will often lead to disappointing results.
Ultimately, Coach K is still one of the greatest coaches in college basketball, and it seems safe to say that Duke will be back next year. With players like Curry, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee returning, Duke could even be better next year, if they address weaknesses at the point guard position and on defense. That will leave this season as a footnote in Coach K's career, one that he'd certainly would like to forget, but one that will ultimately not define his legacy.