This year’s men’s basketball team lost its final two games to teams built on Coach K’s principles: fundamentals, toughness and team defense. The players with “Duke” across their chests played like a broken NBA team. The University of Virginia and Mercer University played like Duke, or at least the Duke we have come to know and love. Yes, prepare yourselves: I’m about to pine nostalgically for the good ‘ole days of Duke basketball.
In the good ole days of Duke basketball, you wouldn’t find such a crisis of leadership. This year’s team had basically two options for developing leadership: lean on seniors like Thornton and Hairston or expect newcomers like Hood and Parker to embrace a leadership role. You either had experienced guys with limited talent or uber-talented guys with limited experience. You could see Thornton talking, correcting and encouraging, but you couldn’t see him saying, “Give me the ball and we’re winning this thing.” You could see Parker and Hood demanding the ball, but you could also see them making silly mistakes typical of young players. And, perhaps most disturbingly, you could also see them playing like star individual performers surrounded by a supporting cast. How many times did Jabari Parker take a deep, contested jumper only to jog down the court and play matador defense? He’s a wonderful player in many ways, but he often looked more like an individual auditioning for the NBA than a Duke player who plays tough, hard-nosed defense every single possession. In the good ole days of Duke basketball, you wouldn’t find Thornton and Parker on the same team—you would find them in the same person. Players like Shane Battier, Grant Hill and Kyle Singler embodied what’s best about both Thornton and Parker.
After some difficult years (by Duke standards) between 2004 and 2009, Singler and his 2010 teammates reminded the world that good ole Duke can still win an NCAA championship. Kentucky’s flashy, sexy group of one-and-dones—headlined by John Wall and Demarcus Cousins—lost to the same West Virginia team that Duke then demolished with decidedly unsexy tactics. We all fell in love with that team because it was just so Duke: Singler’s cuts and black eyes, Scheyer’s phenomenal care with the ball, Nolan’s tenacious defense, Lance’s ability to guard any position, the Zou-beard in all its glory. Since then, Duke has attracted the remarkable talents of Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. It’s awfully telling, however, that the only team since 2010 to progress past the Sweet 16 was last year’s team, made up of experienced seniors who had played with each other for a long, long time. And the two teams that featured freshman phenoms most prominently—2012 and this year—failed to win an ACC championship and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to a 14 or 15 seed. Those teams also stand out for their porous defense and lack of ball movement, two aspects of the game that correlate strongly to the cohesiveness (or lack thereof) of the team as a unit.
My point isn’t that K flubbed his lines this year, or that Jabari wasn’t as good as we expected or even that we should stop recruiting one-and-done type talents. My point is that the Duke basketball program is in a strange, maybe even confused, state right now. The ridiculous one-and-done rule has certainly not helped. But there are two currents running through the program these days: vestiges of good ole Duke’s tough, scrappy identity and a newer, flashier version of Duke made possible by good ole Duke’s astounding success. These currents, I believe, also run right through the man who made it all possible, the man who both recruits Tyler Thornton and chills with Beyonce.
At some point, K’s celebrity status became awkward for his role as Duke’s men’s basketball coach. I have seen good ole Coach K absolutely despondent after less significant losses by less talented Duke basketball teams. But today’s K is also an ambassador for college basketball, and it only makes sense that he would head over to Mercer’s postgame locker room and congratulate them on winning with fundamentals, toughness and team defense. He might even have looked around their locker room nostalgically, wondering what happened to the good ole Duke he created.
Nathan Jones, Trinity ’09, Divinity ’12, is a doctor of theology candidate in the Divinity School.