The 2008-09 Duke Blue Devils beat UNC Asheville in Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight, 99-56. Eleven days ago, Duke lost to Michigan in Ann Arbor. Tonight’s game versus UNC Asheville was the only one on the schedule until Duke plays AP No. 7 Xavier on Saturday.
This Duke team has shown glimpses of brilliance at times this season, namely in its convincing win at Purdue earlier in December. Others times, however, the Blue Devils have struggled against lowly competition, as evidenced by their narrow win against Rhode Island and the loss to Michigan.
Duke added a solid freshman class and returned a wealth of upperclassmen experience, which included Greg Paulus, a three-year starter at point guard. Three additional starters returned from last year’s team that failed to make the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive NCAA tournament.
Early indications showed that this team was going to be significantly better than last season. But after further review, that probably won't be the case.
Currently, Duke is 9-1 with its only résumé win coming at Purdue. Elsewhere, the team has blown out every opponent with the exception of Rhode Island and Michigan. While most fans would be pleased with the kind of start Duke has enjoyed, the writing is on the wall.
Duke is beginning to convince me that they are no better suited for a tournament run than last year.
I recognize problems in all facets of their game. Specifically, the team’s dependency on making three-pointers is troubling. Even when Duke makes them at a good success rate, I am critical of the shooter’s decision to do so because it further increases the team’s tendency to rely on three-pointers.
Another problem is the level of intensity that the team brings on the defensive end, believe it or not. Though at times they are successful in creating turnovers and forcing bad shots as a result of their pressure, other times they give up valuable position around the paint, which leads to open three-point shots and easy layup opportunities for the opponent.
Because of their aggression, the team is usually forced to compensate by rotating prematurely. This leaves ample room for the opponent to make shots that they don’t necessarily earn.
I noticed this trend multiple times in the first half of the UNC Asheville game. The team’s early rotation allowed the Bulldogs to make open three-pointers or pass out of traps for easy baskets.
Also troubling is the amount of turnovers Duke commits offensively. The team is not efficient in passing the ball around the floor. With six minutes remaining in the first half against UNC Asheville, the Bulldogs had stolen the ball seven times from Duke, which equates to one steal for every two game minutes.
Often, a Duke player floats a pass the width of the court, and it is stolen by an opposing defender, all of which leads to fast-break opportunities that aid the opponent in scoring points that they normally wouldn’t.
As I look at Duke’s remaining non-conference schedule, notable opponents include Xavier, Davidson, and Georgetown. These teams are capable of taking advantage of Duke’s mistakes. The things that Duke can get away with versus poor teams will cost Duke wins against teams like the ones listed above.
Note that I was able to find these weaknesses during a half that resulted in a 17-point halftime lead for Duke. The lead was only the result of three turnovers by UNC Asheville, which led to six points for Duke to close the first half.
If these weaknesses are evident in blowouts, they will be painfully obvious in games against good competition. I could recommend ways to make Duke improve, but that is Coach Krzyzewski’s job.
All of the reasons Duke lost early in the NCAA tournament last season are becoming habits of this year’s team. This season’s squad is beginning to rely on three-pointers, their defensive rotations are premature and ineffective, and they commit too many turnovers.
It seems that Duke has lost its edge over the last three seasons when compared to the program’s great teams around the turn of the century. Gone are the days in Durham when the team had legitimate national player of the year candidates, sometimes even for defensive player of the year.
Also gone are the days when Duke was a tremendous recruiting program in college basketball. Sure, the coaching staff still signs McDonald’s All-Americans, but none of them are the caliber of former greats at Duke.
These signs are evidence that Coach Krzyzewski is losing his stride as head coach. Nowadays, he frustrates me, and probably many other Duke fans, because of his poor game preparation, stale recruiting, and lack of in-game adjustments.
Perhaps because of Coach Krzyzewski, Duke is now continually prone to upsets, as evidenced by losses to VCU in the 2007 NCAA tournament, a narrow escape of No. 15 Belmont in last year’s tournament, and the loss to Michigan this season, who is only an average Big Ten team.
Mediocrity like this never happened before at Duke in my recent memory. At least if it did, the team did not have the type of players to meet expectations.
Last season, Duke enjoyed two streaks of 10 consecutive wins. Most programs would love to attain that type of mark. But Duke lost four of its last 8 games to conclude the season and suffered another early exit from the tournament after losing to West Virginia.
Regardless of the reason for the decline in Duke basketball, expect nothing to change this season as this team heads into March. Though it may be able to survive a competitive ACC, I’m reluctant to guarantee any more success in the NCAA tournament that it has achieved in recent years.