“We’re not a good team right now.”
That was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's blunt assessment of his team—as reported by Laura Keeley of the Raleigh News & Observer—after the Blue Devils suffered an upset loss to Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum on Saturday.
The young Devils haven't lived up to lofty preseason top-five billings, falling all the way to No. 23 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. It's a team with six former McDonald's All-Americans and eight RSCI top-100 recruits, so the burden of expectation should be expected to weigh heavy on the players and coaches.
But can this bunch of Blue Devils carry that weight? Thus far in ACC play, there are definite signs of struggle.
Never mind the credentials that these players carried with them when they arrived in Durham, N.C. Based on the struggles to adjust to a flawed roster, it's not hyperbole to consider this the most underachieving season of Coach K's legendary career.
Better to Be Lucky Than Good?
"But wait," Duke Fan will ask, "how is it underachieving after we (it's always we) just beat Virginia?" Granted, Monday night's 69-65 home win over the Cavaliers offers some consolation. It was, however, one fortuitous bounce on a Rasheed Sulaimon three-pointer from sending Durham to DEFCON 2.
Virginia made a sudden rally that pulled back a 13-point deficit into a one-point lead, all in a three-minute span. Then, Sulaimon's shot bent a few laws of physics.
A Cavs win would have been UVa's first at Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995. As it is, that's one of only a few lengthy historical streaks to survive the past week unscathed.
Saturday's loss to Clemson was Duke's first since 2009. Three Tigers—K.J. McDaniels, Landry Nnoko and Jaron Blossomgame—carded double-doubles. According to Clemson Sports Information's notes, reprinted by the Orangeburg (S.C.) Times & Democrat, it was the first time any Clemson trio had managed that feat since a 1985 win over Wake Forest.
To lend a little perspective, that was the Horace Grant era. This writer now feels very old.
Duke's issues have been written about ad nauseam. Duke's big men have struggled to close down the interior and only Amile Jefferson has shown up on the glass—when he's gotten minutes, that is. Over his last nine games, the wiry 6'9" forward has averaged 9.2 rebounds in only 21.7 minutes per game.
In addition, the talented scorers on the roster have struggled to close out tight games, with copious mistakes in the final minutes against Notre Dame, Clemson and Virginia.
|at Notre Dame||2-4||9-9||1|
|vs. Georgia Tech||3-4||0-0||1|
Star freshman Jabari Parker, a national player of the year candidate when he was averaging 22.2 points per game over his first 12, has slumped to 10.8 PPG in his last five. In that span, Parker has made only 19 of 59 shots, a 32 percent clip that includes 5-of-21 (24 percent) from three-point range.
If you believe that the guys who finish the game are more important than the ones who start it, then Parker's importance has been dwindling so far in January. He sat out the final 3:35 against Notre Dame and wore a path to and from the bench over the final three-plus minutes against Virginia.
Parker's establishing himself as a true defensive tweener, not quick enough to defend athletic guards and wings while lacking the bulk to defend burly centers. Coach K's frustration with the rookie's defensive lapses has led to erratic substitution patterns that may now be playing havoc with Parker's confidence.
If not for solid games out of Rodney Hood, the Clemson and Notre Dame losses would have looked much more grisly than they were. If not for Sulaimon's absurd three-point bounce, the Virginia win may not have been a win.
But is this 13-4 unit struggling on a historic level? By most programs' standards, no.
However, this is Duke. The school that sent one player (Christian Laettner) onto the court for 23 of a possible 24 NCAA tournament games over his four-year career, with every season culminating at the Final Four. Regular-season wins and tournament success are less expected than demanded here.
Only once since 1997-98 has any Blue Devils squad failed to win 26 games in a season. To reach that mark in the regular season, this year's team would have to go 13-1 from here to mid-March.
Speaking of March, the 2007 and '08 NCAA tournaments weren't kind to Duke, as those teams won a combined one game in those two events. For all their foibles, however, those two seasons still featured something that looked like a Duke defense. The 2006-07 and '07-08 teams finished seventh and eighth, respectively, in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive rankings (subscription required).
This year's unit currently stands 106th. The only other Duke defense to finish lower than 31st in the Pomeroy era (2002-03 and on) was the 2011-12 Austin Rivers-led team, which scuffled its way to 81st and ended its season with an embarrassing loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh.
Rivers' tale may offer some precedent to herald a rapid recovery for Parker. Like Parker, Rivers was a hyped recruit who looked like the real deal through his first dozen games. Both hit five-game skids that started on or around New Year's Day.
|Statistic||Games 1-12||Games 13-17||Games 18+|
Parker: ESPN.com; Rivers: Yahoo.com
Rivers found his feet, although his decision-making often suffered as he struggled to carry the offense on his back. This despite the presence of stud shooter Seth Curry and two experienced Plumlees.
Parker is more than capable of pulling out of this tailspin, as point guard Quinn Cook said to Steve Weisman of the Durham Herald-Sun before the Clemson game.
Just because (Parker) scores 27 and then 25, people get caught up in the hype. We have a lot of scorers, and he’s fine seeing Rodney score and seeing Rasheed (Sulaimon) score. Jabari is going to struggle—he’s going to struggle at times. He can score with the best of them and everybody’s seen it.
Too Talented to Fail?
This isn't the first time Coach K has had a team full of distinguished high school stars. Duke has signed 43 McDonald's All-Americans since 1993. That year is the last time Krzyzewski failed to bring in any All-Americans in a recruiting class.
Duke has kept the talent so piled up that only three teams since 1997 have had fewer than six former All-Americans on the roster. The table displays the Devils' results since 2004-05, the first season this century that featured five or fewer.
|Season||McD AA||W-L||NCAA Result|
*-through games of Jan. 13
Youth was a factor on the 2006-07 team, with only one upperclassman in the rotation. This year's team sports four, and all have made at least spot starts.
The one-and-done talent of Rivers overshadowed the rest of his team, similar to this year's fixation on Parker. That team, however, sported three skilled post players in Ryan Kelly and Miles and Mason Plumlee.
On the bottom line, this year's Duke team is a more poorly assembled version of the Austin Rivers club, lacking the potent back line that the Plumlees and Kelly provided.
The team has demonstrated a lack of toughness in tight games on hostile ground, but it's easy to get demoralized when the coach can't or won't assemble a lineup that can prevent layups by skilled guards like Clemson's Rod Hall.
The players are giving the best effort they know how, but the flaws on the roster are deep. Coach K has tried to tinker with the lineup, but more fundamental schematic changes will be needed. Whether that's a faster offensive tempo, a zone defense or more minutes for the youngest Plumlee brother, seven-foot Marshall, the coach needs to be open for anything. Thus far, he's not proven quite that flexible.
While the Blue Devils aren't playing up to their pedigrees this season, the biggest underachiever may be Mike Krzyzewski himself.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.