So far this season, Duke has lost only two games. First they lost to NC State in a hard fought battle. Then they lost by 27 to a Miami team that blew them out of the water from the opening whistle.
Both those losses were away games in extremely hostile environments.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski is one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history. Between the four national championships, two goal medals and a litany of other awards and accomplishments, Coach K’s Duke program represents the pinnacle of success.
As a result of that success, Coach K and Duke can insist that the non-conference schedule eschew away games in favor of neutral-site contests. There are good reasons to favor neutral-site games over legitimate away bouts.
First, it exposes Duke to parts of the country beyond Tobacco Road. That gives fans in the Duke diaspora the chance to see their favorite team, and it is an opportunity for potential recruits to see that Duke plays on a big stage with national exposure.
Second, it makes Duke more money. For one, they split the ticket sales with their opponent in a large NBA area. The neutral site also augments Duke’s national marketability, which in modern sports is crucial when conferences negotiate for television contracts that bring in money, which filters down to individual schools like Duke.
Third, it helps acclimate the team to playing in a big venue in front of a large crowd and a national spotlight. The thought is that such experience comes in handy when the players find themselves in the ACC and NCAA tournament.
Duke’s enthusiasm for neutral-site games has benefited the program financially, earned the Blue Devils a national fanbase and attracted high-caliber recruits based on the team’s reputation. Coach K’s success on and off the court obviously supports the merit of neutral-site games.
However, the downside of Duke’s success and the value of neutral location games is that Duke can opt for a neutral site over a true away game each and every time. This leaves Duke unprepared for the hostile environs of ACC conference play.
Coach K and Duke enjoy building a reputation as a program that will play anyone, anywhere. Looking at this season’s schedule it’s clear that Duke certainly will play anyone. Early in the season Duke collided with Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State. That No. 1 ranked RPI schedule proves that Duke isn’t afraid to play anyone.
But looking at the locations for those games points to the fact that, even though Duke will indeed play anyone, they do have some stipulations on where.
Duke played Kentucky in Atlanta. Minnesota, VCU and Louisville were all part of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, located in the Bahamas. Ohio State had to come to Cameron Indoor and was on the schedule as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Later, Duke chose to play Temple in East Rutherford, NJ and Davidson in the Bobcat’s stadium. As a result, the first true away game the Blue Devils played was at NC State—a game they ultimately lost.
Duke doesn’t always go until January 12th to play the first true road game. Sometimes Duke has to travel to one of the Big Ten schools for their challenge matchup. But rarely does Coach K voluntarily seek out a game in a non-conference opponent’s home arena.
It could be argued that both Duke’s losses were due more to the loss of Ryan Kelly than Duke’s lack of familiarity with hostile crowds. While there’s certainly some truth to that, there’s no denying that Duke looked rattled in both away loses.
Against NC State, Duke went into the half down two thanks to a defense that gave up 41 points. Duke never regrouped defensively and gave up 43 points in the second half. Until NC State’s 84 points, Duke had allowed only three opponents to score over 70 (and two of them only scored 71).
Besides looking frazzled on defense as a team, freshman Rasheed Sulaimon went 0-of-10 from the field while fellow freshman Amile Jefferson’s over enthusiasm led to five fouls in 12 minutes of playing time.
The Miami game really exposed the Blue Devils’ inability to compose themselves while being hounded by a hostile crowd. When open shots weren’t going down for Duke and everything Miami put up found the net, the crowd grew increasingly frenzied as the lead grew. The Hurricanes fed off the fans’ energy while Duke wilted under it.
For all the advantages of neutral-site games, they don’t test a team against a worst case scenario. What if the shots are falling, the other team is hot and the crowd is blowing the roof off the building in celebration of your misery?
That’s what went down in Miami. One bad thing after another happened, and Duke, unfamiliar with the situation, allowed it to snowball into a historic blowout.
It’s one thing to demonstrate poise and good team chemistry in an NBA area more or less split 50/50 by fans from each side. It’s another to stay calm when the chips are down in an away game where the student section is downright riotous.
Even upperclassmen can falter in such settings by trying to do too much or playing outside their capabilities (i.e. Tyler Thornton). A team has to learn to absorb a punch as a unit and then lift themselves up together. And the only way to learn that is to familiarize yourself with the scenario.
That's something Duke and Mike Krzyzewski are reticent to do.
Again, I understand why Duke prefers neutral-court games and I’m not about to question the winningest coach in history. But I do think Duke would benefit from some early season away dates.
To that extent, Coach Krzyzewski and Duke's success, which affords them the opportunity to avoid early season away dates, are the causes of their conference failures on the road.