Mike Krzyzewski said it was the lack of an intangible “it” that separated his team from a win and a loss.
Elysia Su / The Chronicle
Mike Krzyzewski said it was the lack of an intangible “it” that separated his team from a win and a loss.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.—“There was something missing,” Mike Krzyzewski said after Duke’s 74-66 loss to North Carolina.

“It” was missing.

Going forward, the question the Blue Devils have to answer: Can they find “it?”

Elysia Su / The Chronicle
“'It.' We didn’t have 'it.' Wherever the hell that thing is, in the second half, 'it' wasn’t in our huddle,” Krzyzewski said. “We looked tired. We didn’t have life. No matter what we did in a timeout, we just didn’t have that spark. That spark, the anger, the emotion—the thing that you have to have to match what their crowd, their team is doing.”

It’s not as if this is a team lacking the talent or pieces. Jabari Parker may be the best player in the country. Rodney Hood may join him in the NBA draft’s lottery. There is good depth behind them with Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Tyler Thornton, Andre Dawkins, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee all filling various roles.

But Thursday wasn’t the first time “it” was missing. The Blue Devils certainly didn’t have “it” against Clemson, when they led by six at half and ultimately lost by 13. Same goes for the loss to Notre Dame, when Duke led by 10 with 11:35 left.

This time the Blue Devils led 51-40 with 15:07 remaining. Slowly, the Tar Heels climbed back into the game. The crowd—which stormed the court after the win—grew louder, and North Carolina had “it.”

“They wanted it more,” Quinn Cook said.

“They wanted it more,” Tyler Thornton said.

Thornton, one of the team’s three captains, said the team didn’t fight, attributing that in part to the team’s youth.

Lacking “it” affects a team all over the court. Duke gave up too many offensive rebounds and easy layups, Thornton said. Krzyzewski noted the team missed its high-percentage shots—layups and free throws. Unlike a flaw in a player’s technique or a scheme that isn’t working, there’s no one place “it” manifests itself.

But what is “it” other than the intangible fiber that defines great Duke teams?

“It’s a part of our Duke tradition,” Thornton said. “Duke teams in the past, situations that we were in, they would’ve pushed through and fought through what we did.”

Perhaps most optimistically for Duke, the players have shown they have “it.” Krzyzewski noted a team can have “it” and still lose—that’s exactly what happened when the Blue Devils lost to Syracuse.

No game this season, win or loss, showed more why the Blue Devils are national championship contenders than when they fell in overtime to the Orange. Amile Jefferson and Jabari Parker were in critical foul trouble. They were playing in front of a record-setting crowd at the Carrier Dome and had every reason to fold. But they didn’t. They sent the game to overtime and fought to the bitter end. There was no questioning if Duke wanted that game as much as Syracuse. And if the Blue Devils play with that verve in a given game, they will beat any team in country more often than not.

“It was a great game. I think both teams were deserving of winning. Both teams played with so much heart,” Krzyzewski said after that Syracuse loss.

The 2010 national championship team also showed its “it” factor in a loss. The Blue Devils lost 79-72 to Maryland in the penultimate game of the regular season, but like the Syracuse loss, they did the right things. In the end, Grevis Vasquez just hit one too many shots. In the defeat, Duke showed a resilience that is required if you want to go all the way in the Big Dance.

“It was a heck of a game. I thought both teams played their heart out,” Krzyzewski said after that defeat to Maryland.

Sound familiar?

And that’s good news for this Duke team. They have “it.” They just need to find “it.”

That, though, is no easy task. Unlike last year’s team that went undefeated in non-conference play, this year’s team isn’t led by three seniors in Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee. Losses, easy and tough ones, were inevitible with this year’s team.

But this year’s team is so immensely talented, that if they find “it” and show “it” on a regular basis, Duke may be the best team in the country. Otherwise, a head coach may remain disappointed.

“That’s to me the disappointing thing: I’m not afraid to lose, and respect people who beat us, but I’d like to have done more in the second half,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m walking out of here frustrated not with the loss, but the fact that we didn’t ante up the way that we should.”