"This is good," a friend said eight minutes into Sunday's second half, with the Blue Devils up three over Wake Forest. "Duke needs the test of a close game."
In the spirit of mid-term week, however, the only grade I'd give the Blue Devils for their performance Sunday is an F.
This season, Duke has won 21 of its games rather comfortably, but it is just 1-1 in games decided by four points or fewer, and Sunday's 86-73 loss wasn't all that close.
The Blue Devils have not orchestrated a successful buzzer-beater or made crucial free throws with the game in the balance. On one occasion, they have had to defend a shot in the final seconds, and we all remember how that turned out-Pittsburgh guard Levance Fields nailed a step-back 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Dave McClure.
And so two questions remain about this squad in close games: Does it have the mettle to win and does it have the ability to execute?
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski always talks about building his team mentally for March, using non-conference games to simulate NCAA Tournament surroundings. It's always seemed that he likes to break his team down in order to build it back up come Tournament time.
In this sense, the loss to Wake Forest certainly could be considered healthy. After the game, several Blue Devils spoke about a lack of energy and toughness. Even Krzyzewski seemed to lack energy, sitting with his head resting on his hand for much of the game as his entire starting five fouled out. But I'm more than happy to give Coach K and his three national titles the benefit of the doubt in developing a tough team.
On the court, though, the answers to these questions are unknown, as Duke hasn't been on the winning end of a nail-biter yet this year. Picture this situation: the Blue Devils are down one point with 10 seconds on the clock and the season is on the line. Coach K has a timeout to draw up a play to potentially win the game. In whose hands do you want the ball?
The point of this question isn't to say that Duke can't or won't win a close game or that none of his players has the ability to hit a game-winner. But wouldn't you like to know the answer before a trip to the Final Four is at stake?
At times, it appears Krzyzewski doesn't even trust his team in late-game situations. After calling his patented "open" stall set, he often stands on the sideline and personally directs each player to a position.
"Kyle," he'll say while pointing at Greg Paulus. "Set a ball screen."
"Gerald, go get the ball!"
"Jon, pass to Lance!"
So the question remains. In the huddle, whose chest is K going to pound and say, "Win us this game?"
Likely first-team all-ACC performer DeMarcus Nelson is the first player who comes to mind. He's performed well in several big games this season, but he has serious confidence issues from the charity stripe, shooting just over 60 percent in ACC play. If you give him the ball and ask him to penetrate, expect the other team to put him on the line. As a fan, I wouldn't feel comfortable with that scenario.
Sophomore Gerald Henderson has made his share of clutch jump shots in his career, but he also hasn't made one in the last two weeks because of his sprained wrist. Come late March, he'll hopefully be healthy, but he'll certainly need to gain his confidence back before I'd trust him with the ball.
Guard Jon Scheyer is the only guy on this team who has taken a shot for the win this season-two, in fact-and neither came close to falling.
Freshman Kyle Singler has nailed a couple of huge 3-pointers this season, and he's certainly grown up in the last few games. But on his most critical attempt of the season, with Duke up one in overtime against the Panthers, Singler-a 77-percent free-throw shooter-missed the first of two shots and gave the Blue Devils an all-too-brief two-point lead.
Paulus hit two clutch shots against Davidson and has drilled some big-time ACC treys. I'd love to see him open in the corner, but what if he has to create his own shot?
With over half of the ACC slate behind them, the Blue Devils still have some time to find the answer to their late-game questions. Come final-exam time, though, someone is going to need to become that go-to guy for Duke to get the ultimate A.
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