With Duke’s season being derailed by the locomotive force of Louisville, the phrase that comes to mind is The Grateful Dead lyric, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.”
Duke opened the NCAA tournament with a less than impressive 73-61 win over Albany. The Great Danes used good guard play to knock down nine of 15 three-pointers. Duke’s poor perimeter defense was reminiscent of the 2011-12 team’s weakness.
That ominous familiarity was a genuine cause for concern. Following an atrocious defensive performance against Maryland in the ACC tournament, it looked as if the Blue Devils were set to once again see their season end thanks to an inability to get defensive stops.
When Duke took on Creighton, however, the Blue Devils had definitive answers for anyone who questioned their defense.
Doug McDermott drew Duke’s defensive attention. Despite the Bluejays’ best attempts to free their national player of the year candidate, the Blue Devils smothered McDermott for the full 40 minutes. In the end, he shot just 4-of-16 and Creighton, which entered as one of the country’s top offenses by averaging 75.4 points per game, lost 66-50.
As impressive as the defense was against Creighton, Michigan State posed a bigger test. While Creighton was, more or less, a one-man team, the Spartans spread around the scoring. Only a complete defensive effort would slow Tom Izzo’s squad.
Under all that pressure, Duke put together the best defensive performance of the Blue Devils’ entire season.
Michigan State came out shooting hot, but those contested jumpers eventually stopped falling for the Spartans. Michigan State went a mere 3-of-12 from three, but it was Duke’s interior defense that was the most impressive bit of dominance.
Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee did a fantastic job of turning Derrick Nix into the help defense. As a result, Michigan State’s perceived inside superiority was utterly negated. Nix and Adreian Payne both went 3-of-10 from the floor, and Duke’s mastery of defensive switches and strong rebounding led to a 71-61 win.
The takeaway from those first three NCAA tournament games was that Duke had won even when the vaunted Blue Devils offense wasn’t firing on all cylinders. In essence, Duke had developed all the components to put forth a complete team effort.
All season Duke’s problem had been that if the shots weren’t falling, then the team was incredibly vulnerable. In fact, even against lesser opponents, Duke had struggled to overcome poor shooting nights. In the first three games of the tournament, when it mattered most, Duke’s defense finally stepped up and covered for difficult shooting stretches.
Going into the game against Louisville, this was a reason for hope. If the defensive effort the Blue Devils had shown against Michigan State could be combined with a typical offensive night for Duke, then even the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed could be toppled.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t how it played out.
Against Louisville, it wasn’t that Duke’s defense suddenly stopped. It’s just that it wasn’t enough. Defensively, Duke did a decent job. True, the high ball screen consistently got Louisville to the rim, but only because the Cardinals threw in an extra wrinkle.
Rick Pitino added a second high screener to further complicate the defensive switch. That adjustment caused Duke’s decision-making on help defense to deteriorate. At that point, the Cardinals had a reliable scoring option as Silva and Smith slashed to the basket.
Even still, Duke’s defense wasn’t the culprit. Throughout the NCAA tournament, and even in the ACC tournament against Maryland, Duke’s offense failed to fire like the well-oiled machine it had been at times in the regular season.
Seth Curry only put up three shots in the first half and missed all of them. His zero points in the first 20 minutes were followed by 12 points in the second half, but that simply wasn’t enough. The statistic about Curry not playing well on short rest proved prescient. Even free-throws weren’t falling for the sharp-shooting senior.
Ryan Kelly, who had struggled since the magnificent Miami game, drew three quick fouls and missed much of the first half. By the final whistle, the senior had just seven points.
Rasheed Sulaimon, who is destined to develop into a prime contributor, slumped toward three points on 1-of-10 shooting.
Quinn Cook, who was the MVP in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament where Duke beat Louisville, had a second consecutive bad game. He had 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting and continued to make poor ball-handling decisions under pressure.
Mason Plumlee, meanwhile, played pretty well against a tough opponent. He had 17 points and 12 rebounds. For all the hype about how Gorgui Dieng would dominate the paint, Mason Plumlee certainly made an imprint of his own on the game.
As with the ACC tournament loss to Maryland, Duke’s most enigmatic player—Mason Plumlee—actually pulled his weight while the rest of the team bowed under the strain.
It’s a strange situation. Basically, Duke spent the 2012-13 season being frustratingly schizophrenic. That lack of consistent reliability proved costly, as the Blue Devils would’ve required a complete offensive and defensive effort to knock off the Louisville juggernaut.
Ironically, Duke more or less mimicked the narrative that plagued Mason Plumlee. The senior big man, who started the season as a Naismith Player of the Year candidate, divided opinion among Duke fans and Duke haters alike. Some games he looked unstoppable. Other games he was miserable and deservedly maligned for failing to assert himself.
As a team, Duke found itself in a similarly manic state.
To start the year, the Blue Devils looked like the best team in the country. Then Ryan Kelly got hurt and Duke struggled to make sense of the situation. Eventually, the roster adjusted to the loss and the offense found its feet. When Kelly came back, the Blue Devils were a more developed team. Scoring options abounded and the defense, with Kelly as the vocal leader, improved dramatically.
Then in the ACC tournament, Duke threw up a true clunker of a game. The defense was abysmal and Mason Plumlee, who had previously been owned by Alex Len, was the Blue Devils’ only bright spot. The oddities didn’t abate in the NCAAs. As I detailed, after a lackluster game against Albany, Duke’s defense came together against Creighton and reached its zenith against Michigan State.
But as Duke’s defense rose, the offense wilted. Like a game of whack-a-mole, one player would explode on offense but another would disappear. It made for an offense in which opponents couldn’t key in on a single player, but that diversity only does so much good against a total defensive effort.
That’s what Louisville put on display. At every position the Cardinals blanketed Duke. When the Blue Devils needed every single scoring option to make himself available, only Mason Plumlee answered the call. And so the engine of the offense limped forward firing on only one piston.
It’s always sad to see a team’s season end. It’s particularly sad when it comes on the back of a game that didn’t live up to the potential the team had. In terms of effort, I have no doubt that the Blue Devils gave it everything they had, but no one will argue that Duke’s game against Louisville was indicative of the team’s capabilities if everything had clicked at the same time.
There’s a certain inclination to label any Duke season that doesn’t end in a Final Four appearance a failure. In my opinion, this season wasn’t a good one or a bad one. It wasn’t a failure or a success. There was a ton of potential and plenty of unlucky pitfalls. It was a season of bad timing. And that’s why the clock ran out on Duke.