Duke Basketball's Success Needs a New Measuring Stick
On the eve of the ACC Tournament I have been thinking a lot about Duke Basketball.
It is natural for any fan to ponder the strengths and weaknesses of their team before a big tournament.
In addition to this season I've been thinking about the last few years, the last decade and the nearly 30 years that I've been watching the Blue Devils.
I've weighed the criticisms of the program, especially those coming from fans, and have come to one clear determination: It may be time to change how the Duke program's success is measured.
For years the program has used its postseason success as well as the letters D-U-K-E to stand for something associated with excellence.
Most never thought an unknown coach with an unpronounceable name would transform a small private school in North Carolina with a strong basketball history into one of the four or five greatest programs in the country.
Yet that is exactly what Mike Krzyzewski did. Under his stewardship, Duke has become one of the pillars of college basketball.
With that success came raised expectation of from both fans and the media. Often you hear that success is measured in championships and that is no different at Duke.
But is that necessarily fair?
As a younger fan, Duke beating North Carolina was the measure of success. Anything more than that in any given season was gravy. Then the ACC tournament and more importantly the NCAA tournament became the ultimate measuring stick.
Although a win over the Tar Heels never hurts.
I remember when 20 wins was an exceptional year. Now it is a mediocre year for a top-tier team. Duke's worst season in the last decade was 2006-07 when they finished 22-11.
It admittedly is mediocre but considering Kentucky's recent (until this year anyway) struggles, North Carolina and UCLA's current struggles, a 22-11 season for the Blue Devils wasn't that bad.
It wasn't a great year by modern standards but not horrible either. At least it included a trip to the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately it also resulted in an uncharacteristic exit in the first round.
Duke has achieved so much success that anything less than a Final Four is a deemed a disappointment by the media and an abject failure by some fans.
Despite being the winningest active coach in NCAA Division 1, Krzyzewski still gets criticized at every turn if his teams aren't cutting down the nets at the Final Four.
And for some fans, ACC Championship don't count for much. Last year, for example, Duke managed to topple a superior UNC team to win the ACC Tournament Championship. But two weeks later when they were bounced roughly from the tournament by Villanova; all the talk was about Duke's decline.
Krzyzewski addressed the high expectations before last season and was criticized for saying that the bar for determining Duke's excellence was high, and at times depending on the team, it was not always attainable.
Thankfully, there are still those realists who see a 30 win season and a Sweet 16 berth as a very good year.
This year the Blue Devils have exceeded my expectations and are in a good position to make a deep tournament run. But they seemed to be last year too.
While I was disappointed by the end result, I can still recognize it as being a good year. For some Duke fans it is the championship or nothing, and for the media it is the Final Four or nothing.
Criticism ranges from Krzyzewski not recruiting well enough, or not managing his bench well enough among other things. Is he infallible or above criticism? Certainly not, but he isn't in the Hall of Fame for nothing.
I don't always agree with him, but I am a fan and he is a coach so I'll leave it at that. I don't want to be one of these fans who feel like they know better than the coach.
I refuse to be a Little League parent.
College basketball has evolved since Krzyzewski had Duke in seemingly every Final Four in the late '80s and early '90s. I'll admit he has occasionally seemed a bit slow to change with the times, but he has adapted especially with his recent approach to recruiting.
He also has run a clean program that graduates players, giving all real fans of the university a basketball program that they should be proud.
I believe it is time for some Duke fans and even fans of other college powerhouses to gain some perspective and reexamine their definition of success.
Sure every team wants to win it all every year but that isn't going to happen. North Carolina fans would probably kill to be 22-10 heading into the NCAA Tournament. The same goes for UCLA fans.
But does one bad year or three or four good-but-not-great years mean your team is in decline? I'm not so sure.
Even Duke's worst seasons during this decade were still decent if not good seasons by any objective standard.
Since 2004 all that anyone seems to care about is the fact the Blue Devils haven't made a Final Four.
They aren't the only team who hasn't.
I'm confident Duke will get back to the Final Four, if not this year then soon enough. I'm also willing to be patient, a virtue that is often lost among fans.
If Cubs fans can still hold out hope then so can I.
So, if Duke ends the year in the Elite Eight, Sweet 16 or worse then I will be disappointed, but I'm not going to play the role of Chicken Little.
If the Blue Devils start having trouble winning 20 or more games year after year then I may start to worry, but even at their worst they haven't come close to that.
In the end it may be time for fans and media to start measuring Duke by what its done instead of what it hasn’t.
However, for some that still won't be good enough. It never is.
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