After each loss this season, there seemed to be an obvious lesson for the Blue Devils to take away.
Against Ohio State they learned what it’s like to face elite competition on the road. The loss to Temple showed that being talented does not make up for not being physical. Each ensuing defeat appeared didactic in similar ways, whether it was about perimeter defense or rebounding or something in between.
In spite of those losses that were supposed to be building blocks to prevent future ones, Duke has yet to find its secret sauce. Even so, the team has coasted by in the top-10 every week, often at the center of positive media attention, never having that feeling of being on the outside and looking in.
They won the Maui Invitational, and just as this team looked as if it might enter crisis mode following two home ACC losses, Austin Rivers hit the shot of the season to beat North Carolina Feb. 8.
Still, the Blue Devils continually find new ways to lose, or almost lose games, such as in their 62-59 defeat at the hands of Florida State, in which head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad looked sluggish from the start, turning the ball over 14 times in the first half.
While a team can learn lessons on the court about rebounding, communication, offense and defense, maybe Duke can learn its most valuable lesson of the year after being forced to watch the ACC championship between North Carolina and Florida State on television.
Despite talent, impressive victories, a strong record and No. 2 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament, there seems to be a staggering lack of urgency within this year’s team. Because they have edged by with close wins all season and have only managed to lose six games, maybe this team did not fully understand that losing has serious consequences.
Before the one-and-done nature of the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils needed this early loss in the ACC tournament as the wake-up call that shows them if they continue to play without energy from the opening jump, they will be spending a lot of March watching ESPN instead of playing on it.
“I think you just have to go in and realize every game is our last,” Rivers said after the loss to the Seminoles. “You’ve got to come out from the gates.”
That has been easier said than done for Duke this season. The Blue Devils have been outscored in the first 20 minutes of play 10 times this season. They are deft comeback warriors, having won five of those 10 games, but Saturday’s game against Florida State counts as one of the other five, where early sloppiness cost them the home victory.
“I think they were just physical throughout the whole game while we were only physical in the second half,” Rivers said. “It’s hard to beat a good team when you do that.”
The same thing happened in the team’s home loss to Miami, in which Duke went into the break losing by 14, only to battle back and lose in overtime. Games like these would be easy wins if the Blue Devils played with that same fight for the first 20 minutes.
It is easy to pick at Xs and Os and blame 3-point shooting or rebounding for this team’s woes, but the biggest adjustment it must make in order to succeed in the NCAA tournament is a mental one, understanding the need to play 40 minutes of sharp basketball.
When Krzyzewski’s team has come out aggressively, they have been good at holding those leads. Duke has lost just once after going into break with an advantage.
“If we can come out from the gates quicker and come out throwing the first punch it’s tough for a team to get back,” Rivers said. “We’re a team, when we do that, it’s really tough to beat us.”
That is the attitude the Blue Devils must come out with in the NCAA tournament, one they did not have against Florida State and in other games this season.
If they fail to do so, we may analyze their performance afterwards and again identify an aspect of the team’s game that sent them to their final loss. But when a team consistently finds different ways to lose, it’s time to admit the one thing it must change before the big dance has to do with their mental approach.
Eking out close wins and dramatic comebacks, the Blue Devils regularly display grit down the stretches of games.
Yet that same late-game toughness has also prevented them from learning that coming out flat just won’t cut it come tournament time, a lesson that they should learn from their loss to Florida State.