The difference between being ranked 23rd and 123rd, for most teams, is astronomically large. But for Duke basketball, sitting on the edge of the rankings is about the same as teetering over the edge of the Empire State Building—the expectations are high and the room for error very little. This is uncharted territory for a team accustomed to being a power house, and the feeling of perhaps falling out of the rankings altogether is a living nightmare to any Blue Devil fan.
Missing 11 shots and scoring only two points down the stretch is not characteristic of championship-caliber teams, yet this is the fate Duke basketball, currently ranked 23rd in the Associated Press poll, faces as they prepare for the University of Virginia.
Saturday’s loss to Clemson University, a loss that dropped Duke to 1-2 in ACC play, punctuated the Blue Devils’ weaknesses and reinforced the fact that this year’s team is unraveling in front of our eyes. We first saw it coming back in November, when Vermont stormed into Cameron and almost upset Jabari and company had it not been for a mere half of a second that separated Vermont’s last attempt from counting on the scoreboard.
Duke began to turn the season around, but that Vermont game spelt trouble for the team as conference play loomed ahead. This past week’s two losses to the University of Notre Dame and Clemson, both of which saw the Blue Devils squander leads after the first half, seemingly served as a dagger straight to the heart of this year’s squad. Falling out of the AP Top 10 for the first time since 2007 was brutal enough, but Duke out of the AP Top 25? That’s unheard of.
But these rankings may just be what will allow this team to recover. Adversity, perhaps, could be the motivation this Duke basketball team needs to overcome its small stature and play with the likes of Syracuse University and the University of Arizona. The talent is there, no doubt, but after all the hype that has surrounded this team, maybe getting humbled by weaker conference opponents will spark the fire that the Blue Devils need to succeed.
Last year’s national champion, the University of Louisville, underwent a similar slump midway through last season, dropping three straight conference games in mid-January. They then went on to win 19 of 20 to claim the national title, with their one loss coming on the road at the hands of Notre Dame in a five-overtime thriller.
The 2011 National Champion University of Connecticut had an even tougher road to the title, losing nine games in conference play, including four of five leading up to their conference tournament. They then went on an 11-game win streak that culminated with the team cutting the nets down at the end of the tournament in April.
In short, Duke’s season is not over, even though many of us on campus feel that way. It’s hard watching Duke lose to teams of lesser pedigree and those without stud freshmen players like Jabari Parker. But this assumed invincibility is what I think is damaging this year’s team the most.
A perfect season is impossible in the bloodbath that is the new Atlantic Coast Conference, and we should expect no less than a few dings as Duke heads into the ACC tournament. If Duke were to enter in unscathed, the lack of adversity could be detrimental to a potential championship run. Who would we turn to in a moment of crisis in March if there were no previous experience in that situation?
I’d rather see Duke lose games now to Clemson and Notre Dame than to lose them later. Learn from the mistakes and move on—that is the formula for success in sports. There is still plenty of time to adjust and make improvements to what hasn’t worked up to this point.
For one, Duke is too top-heavy and needs to find a better way to distribute scoring. Jabari and Rodney Hood have combined to make 47 percent of Duke’s field goals, while Arizona’s top two leading scorers, Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, have combined to make just 38 percent of their team’s field goals. That statistic right there seems like a blatant issue for a team that aspires to go deep in March, and it is totally fixable.
Taking it simply, it’s January 14, not March 14, leaving Rasheed, Amile, Quinn and Andre plenty of time to find their touch and carry more of the scoring load. The question going forward is 'when will they?' and in what context. When two players are the only ones shouldering the scoring load, others become dependent on those two pivotal players to put the ball in the hoop—but what if the ball isn’t falling that night for Jabari or Rodney? Slumps happen to the best of players, but a team can fight through those slumps if the ever-important support players step up and hit the big shots.
All things are not lost—we just need some humility (and patience) to provide the drive that Duke needs to be the team we all think they really are.
Mark Schreiber is a Trinity freshman. His column runs every other Tuesday. Send Mark a message on Twitter @MarkSchreib.