Saturday's 91-89 overtime loss to Syracuse was Duke's fifth loss of the year. On paper, this looks concerning. It also just feels concerning. Heck, the team lost only six games all of last season. You have to go back to the 1996-97 season to find a Duke team that lost this many games, this early in the season.
But there are two things to know right now:
1) Duke’s early-season losses don’t matter
2) The loss to Syracuse is pretty much the best loss a team could ever have.
Why shouldn’t you care about Duke’s early season defeats? They obviously matter in some sense—the NCAA Tournament selection committee obviously will not ignore disappointing defeats at Clemson and Notre Dame, not to mention the losses to Kansas and Arizona on neutral courts.
More so than most Duke teams in recent memory, though, this team has evolved during the year. More so than many Duke seasons in recent memory, Coach K has evolved with the team throughout the year. The team that took the court Feb. 1 against Syracuse is nothing like the one that lost to Kansas in the second game of the year.
It’s not just little differences, either. The offense is no longer just hoping Jabari Parker hits shots. The offense, in fact, is quite spectacular: Duke’s offense has the highest efficiency rating dating back through 2003, the first year advanced college basketball statistics website KenPom.com has data.
The rotation of players playing has also wildly changed. Remember when Rasheed Sulaimon was in the doghouse and didn’t play against Michigan? (Note: Coach K does not have a doghouse.) I think we can all see that 'Sheed’s time riding the pine is over this season.
Just as important as 'Sheed is the recent play of Andre Dawkins. He didn’t play against Kansas. He was also just a small factor in the Arizona and Michigan games. And when he did light it up, it was against weaker teams like Gardner-Webb or Eastern Michigan. That’s why it’s so impressive that he scored a combined 34 points on 12-of-20 shooting in Duke’s two games against Pittsburgh and Syracuse. When he comes into games, opposing teams must account for him on defense, else he’ll make it rain.
There are other differences too. Tyler Thornton is playing less, and is far more efficient in his minutes. Amile Jefferson has developed into possibly the best rebounder in the ACC. Marshall Plumlee is finding his niche as a stopper in the paint and rebounder, even if he isn’t ready to do big things on the offensive end just yet. Jefferson and Plumlee’s increases in minutes mean that Parker spends less time playing center, which is good for the defense and Parker’s long-term stamina.
This now brings us back into point No. 2: If Duke has correctly made all these adjustments, why didn’t it beat Syracuse?
Well, sometimes the final result of a game just doesn’t really show how well or not well a team played. And given a number of circumstances, Duke played a heck of a game. I’m not sure I’ve even watched a loss that gave me so much more confidence in the future of a team: Wouldn’t you even take Duke as five-point favorites right now for the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium? Ten points?
The Blue Devils persevered through questionable foul calls (Jefferson’s fourth and Parker’s fifth), a perplexing no-call (Rodney Hood’s dunk attempt) and what will likely be their most hostile road environment of the season. Duke, ultimately, scored 89 points against one of the best defenses in the country. Then, the Orange needed career-high scoring days from C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant to only win the game by two. Look, I’m not saying Duke was robbed and cheated. The game is over. Duke lost. But as far as losses go, it’s pretty darn encouraging for the future prospects of the team.
On Selection Sunday, at some point Duke’s resume will come up. This will be a Duke team with more losses than we’re used to, they’ll say. How did they lose to Clemson and Notre Dame, neither of which will make the Big Dance, they’ll ask. And Saturday’s loss to Syracuse will still be in the loss column—'can they really hang with the best of the best?' they’ll mull.
But when you want to think about how good Duke actually is and their chances at winning big games going forward, remember these things, because the Blue Devils are different. In a very good way.