Shades of gray in Duke’s future

I give up.  

I’m totally baffled by Duke’s men’s basketball team. I honestly have no idea what to expect the rest of the way.

If the Blue Devils go to the Final Four, I won’t be surprised. Hell, they could win the whole thing and I’d be thrilled—but not floored. They could lose in the second round and it wouldn’t be outside of the realm of possibility. It’s a team with no ceiling, and, as we saw against Georgetown, no floor.

Make no mistake. I was in the Verizon Center last Saturday. I have the GRAY-OUT! T-shirt to prove it. (Yes, I do plan on wearing it, eventually, but the pain is too fresh right now.) (Yes, you read that right—it’s a cool shirt!) I braved the snow, and the ice, and the Hoya fan who insulted me each of the seven times he walked by my table on the way to the bathroom at Bar Louie even though I had every right to insult him since he was the one who was drunk at 10 a.m. and apparently had a bladder the size of a peanut. I know what I saw—an old-fashioned butt-whuppin’.

Of course, I see the basketball world through Duke blue glasses. I am, after all, the man who brought you The Train four years ago, and I insist on picking the Blue Devils in my NCAA Tournament pool every year, even though it always just means I’m throwing away my money. After the N.C. State loss, I was willing to chalk up the result to a once-in-a-season shooting performance from the Wolfpack—that is to say, to bad luck.

In the midst of the Georgetown game, I was ready to chalk that loss up to bad luck, too. I was at the game with my cousin (a pretty good high school basketball player back in the day—he once played in the same high school all-star game as former Tar Heel Joe Forte’s little brother Jason), and he turned to me and said, “I thought Duke was known for their defense.” “They are,” I replied. “But Georgetown is just shooting an outrageous percentage.” “That’s because they’re shooting layups,” my cousin said.

I clung to my “Georgetown shot a preposterous percentage from the field” argument until I got back from the Verizon Center and checked’s shot chart. The Hoyas went 19-for-19 on layups and added six dunks; on everything else, they shot 9-for-22—not awful, but certainly not outrageous. I was forced to conclude that I really had just watched Georgetown beat the pants off of Duke, eviscerating what I (as well as Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted numbers) thought was a good defense with wide-open backdoor cuts and drives to the basket.

So I was left with a question: Which was the real Duke—the team that beat Gonzaga by 35 on a neutral court, or the team that looked totally lost against Georgetown?  

The easiest answer is to look at recent performance, especially given the Blue Devils’ (justified or unjustified) reputation as a team that fades down the stretch. But today’s only February 3; that’s way too early for a late-season collapse.  

The next-easiest answer is to look at popular opinion. The national media seems to believe that Duke’s loss to the Hoyas was an aberration—the Blue Devils didn’t even fall out of the top 10 in the Associated Press poll. But eight of the 10 teams behind Duke also lost last week, so maybe the Blue Devils didn’t deserve their spot as much as no one else did. Anyway, I probably watch nearly as much college basketball as anyone in the national media, so I don’t particularly care what they think.

When all else failed, I fell back on my English major training—it was time for a close reading. Here is what head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Duke’s win over Florida State prior to the Georgetown game: “The only thing is that [the Hoyas] haven’t played since Monday…. Their preparation is going to be much better than ours, that’s just a fact. But we’re looking forward to it, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that it’s not going to be an easy game, and I’m not sure what it will tell. We’re playing at 1:00 in the afternoon so we have a really quick turnaround. It’s a good game for our young guys to step forward and have an opportunity to be more of a part of the actual win and not just the preparation of a win.”

Sounds to me like Coach K was writing this one off before it even started. “Their preparation is going to be much better than ours,” “I’m not sure what it’ll tell,” “good game for our young guys to step forward”—maybe my close reading tells you more about me than it does about reality, but it sure doesn’t seem like Krzyzewski thought the game was as important as CBS did, or as Georgetown’s booster club did with its free GRAY-OUT! shirts, or even as Duke’s fans, eager for an NCAA Tournament-measuring stick game, did. (We’re conveniently ignoring the fact that, if excuses were ice cream and cake, Coach K would basically have had a birthday party.)

Then you see that Andre Dawkins and Mason Plumlee logged 13 minutes each, and Ryan Kelly was in for seven, and it seems to fit the pattern. (We’re also conveniently ignoring the fact that Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith played 38, 38 and 36 minutes, respectively.) Coach K wanted to beat Georgetown, but he recognized that the short turnaround made it difficult, and he wasn’t going to sacrifice ACC games to win a big out-of-conference matchup.  

At least, I hope that’s what it means. Because the alternatives—a late-season slide is imminent, Georgetown really is that much better than Duke—are really depressing.

Hey, at least UNC’s been awful!


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