Duke Basketball: An Unfortunately Early Blue Devils Season Recap

Dantzler SmithContributor IIIApril 6, 2017

RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 21:  Quinn Cook #2 of the Duke Blue Devils walks off the court after losing to the Mercer Bears 78-71 in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at PNC Arena on March 21, 2014 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When you think of a Porsche you envision one of the best cars in the world. Year after year, Porsche puts out vehicles that are aesthetically pleasing and mechanically efficient. This year, Porsche put out its latest model, the 911 GT3.

It had all the hallmarks of the previous incarnations and promised to be one of the world’s most beautiful and powerful cars. There was just one problem. Due to a loose fastener on the connecting rod, the extremely expensive luxury sports car had a tendency to catch on fire.

Ultimately Porsche was compelled to recall the 911 GT3. All the high praise and promise that was the 911 GT3 just ended up a burnt crisp that left egg on the faces of everyone involved in its construction.

Sound familiar, Duke fans?

Like Porsche, the Blue Devils allowed themselves to become victims of their own success. Duke can compete for the top high school recruits, and that’s basically what the program has done in recent years. This season saw the talent level of the team go through the roof with the additions of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood.

Expectations were high, and initially, Duke justified all the hype. In the second game of the season, Duke lost a close game to Kansas in which Parker played well before fouling out. The next three games Duke continued to pour on offense and collect easy wins.

Nov 24, 2013; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Rodney Hood (5) shoots as Vermont Catamounts forward Hector Harold (5) defends at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Then Vermont came to Cameron.

Looking back, the Catamounts were one hell of a warning sign for how the Blue Devils would ultimately end their season. Duke’s defensive issues allowed Vermont to get layup after layup. In the end, Duke shot the ball so well that it escaped with a one-point win. Even still, it laid bare Duke’s major flaw and the seed of the team's eventual destruction.

Defense and rebounding were the buzzwords all season for Duke. The idea was that the Blue Devils needed to improve in those areas and in the meantime would simply try to outscore opponents.

With the exception of Arizona, this worked pretty well in nonconference play. Then the ACC games began with a trip to Notre Dame, and the Irish served up a blueprint to beat the Blue Devils.

Notre Dame did three things. It slowed the pace, played a zone and scored in the paint. While not the most complex coaching strategy, it completely befuddled the Blue Devils. Clemson took note and beat Duke behind the same style of play.

CLEMSON, SC - JANUARY 11: Andre Dawkins #34 of the Duke Blue Devils drives to the basket past Jordan Roper #20 of the Clemson Tigers during the game at Littlejohn Coliseum on January 11, 2014 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)
Tyler Smith/Getty Images

In both games, Duke saw zone and responded by taking a ton of threes (25 three-point attempts against Notre Dame and 25 against Clemson) instead of trying to score off penetration. Settling for jumpers led to extended scoring droughts, and both Notre Dame and Clemson continued to plug away on offense behind high-percentage shots earned inside the lane.

A win over Virginia immediately following the Clemson loss suggested that Duke had righted the ship. The Blue Devils faced Virginia’s stout defense and slow pace, but they pulled out a win anyway. Consecutive victories over N.C. State, Miami, Florida State and Pitt suggested that it was OK to be optimistic.

At this point Duke had earned road wins, the offense was looking dynamic and the defense, while not great, was improving. Even the loss at Syracuse didn’t disprove those observations. The Blue Devils shot the lights out against Jim Boeheim’s vaunted zone and forced overtime in the Carrier Dome.

RALEIGH, NC - MARCH 21:  Jabari Parker #1 of the Duke Blue Devils goes up for the ball against Langston Hall #21 of the Mercer Bears in the first half in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at PNC Arena on March 21, 2014 in Ralei
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke rebuilt momentum with four straight wins. Only the Maryland game showed signs of a looming problem, but that could be written off as a byproduct of the Terps’ emotional determination to win their final game in Cameron. Of course, it was also important to note that Maryland played a lot of zone against Duke, which once again caused the Blue Devils to fall in love with jump shots.

Then came North Carolina. The Tar Heels tore Duke down to Earth. The 66–74 loss had all the hallmarks of the defeats to Clemson and Notre Dame. The Tar Heels played a zone, slowed the pace and scored inside. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, couldn’t defend and went on an epic shooting drought.

From that point forward it was pretty evident that Duke was spinning its wheels. The Blue Devils didn’t look good in wins and were downright awful in a loss to Wake Forest. As bad as Duke was against Mercer, the 71 points scored in that NCAA loss was a higher point total than the Blue Devils achieved in seven of their previous 10 games.

By the end of the season, the high-octane potential of Duke’s offensive engine had, like the Porsche 911 GT3, short-circuited. The offensive flameout put pressure on the Blue Devils defense. While the defense had improved since the start of the season, it was nowhere near good enough to shoulder the load of the team.

Unable to play strong enough defense to cover offensive droughts, Duke reverted to panic mode. A roster full of players capable of driving the lane all of a sudden became a one-dimensional jump-shooting team. Obviously, the 37 three-point attempts against Mercer were an extreme example of this, but Duke took a ton of threes down the final stretch of the season.

In the loss to Wake Forest, Duke was 6-of-27 from three. Duke was 5-of-22 in the loss to North Carolina. The issue with Duke’s offense was that when the Blue Devils couldn’t score, they tended to take low-percentage shots. That illogical attempt to dig themselves out of holes inevitably exacerbated the problem.

GREENSBORO, NC - MARCH 16:  Jabari Parker #1 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts during their final minutes of their loss to the Virginia Cavaliers in the finals of the 2014 Men's ACC Basketball Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum on March 16, 2014 in Greensboro
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Duke had an entire season to shore up the defense so that scoring droughts wouldn’t lead to the team’s overall implosion. Instead, the fact that the Blue Devils only made minor improvements on defense remained a lingering issue throughout the year and eventually blew up Duke’s NCAA bid.

At the end of the day, Duke had one of its most talented teams ever.

The offense was one that featured a bevy of wing players who could drive the lane or pull up for a shot. For much of the season, this talent shone. However, when the defensive issues were put to the test due to an opponent attacking the rim, or if Duke’s shooting went cold, then the offense stopped firing on all cylinders. A defensive design flaw undercut all the offensive potential.

Sadly, that’s the story of the season. What could’ve been one of Duke’s best teams made such minimal improvement on defense that all the Blue Devils offensive firepower went up in flames. Like Porsche, the name and prestige were present, but an underlying problem that never got fully fixed caused a world renowned name brand to catch fire as if it were a 1970s Ford Pinto.