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Time for Blue Devils to get killer instinct

Austin Rivers may be just a freshman, but he has the most developed winning instinct on the team, Claxton writes.
Austin Rivers may be just a freshman, but he has the most developed winning instinct on the team, Claxton writes.

Great news for the Duke faithful—it’s February!

The month that in recent years has seen such monumental events as the rise of Elliot Williams and the awakening of Brian Zoubek is finally here. Will this year’s batch of Blue Devils be able to find that same magic? Or will they again fade down the stretch and burn out early in the NCAA Tournament as they did in 2007 and 2008?

If Saturday’s press conference is any indication, head coach Mike Krzyzewski is as fired up as ever for the stretch run.

“I hate saying we did enough to win,” Krzyzewski said, after his team staggered to a seven-point victory over St. John’s. “I mean, that’s not who I am, and not what this program is. You don’t ‘Do enough to win.’ We play really good basketball, and then hopefully we win. But that’s the story…. I’m not pleased with today one bit. One bit.”

This on the heels of the coach’s press conference in College Park, Md., where he called on the Cameron Crazies to boost support for the game against the Red Storm. The fans came out re-energized, but the team came with the same inconsistent product it has brought at home all season.

The Blue Devils, it seems, are struggling to find the winner’s mentality—their killer instinct, so to speak.

Against St. John’s, Duke was up by as much as 22 in the second half, and led by 21 with 14:23 to play. Yet, with 20 seconds remaining, the Red Storm needed only four points to complete the comeback. The Blue Devils did enough to win in the end, but just enough.

When Florida State came to Durham, Duke led by nine with a minute to play before halftime, but instead of clamping down and extending its advantage, the team got Snaer-ed at the end of the half and went into the break up just six.

While the Blue Devils struggle defensively, they’ve shown the ability to overcome their deficiency and win games on the offensive end. Lately, however, the team has been missing that extra push to put the game out of reach and crush the spirit of the opponent.

That’s not to say that this squad doesn’t play with emotion, because they certainly do. The difference this season, it seems, is that the Blue Devils get satisfied with comfortable leads. Instead of putting the pedal down and extending the margin, they let off the gas and take a breath.

It’s during those periods that teams like the Seminoles and Red Storm make their comebacks. After a few strong possessions, the momentum changes and it takes Duke several more trips down the floor to figure out a way to slow the momentum swing. Even if they still have the lead, the Blue Devils get visibly flustered as if they were the team trailing.

Of course, this is still a very young, inexperienced Duke squad. These Blue Devils haven’t learned how to play with the same attitude, the same swagger, as the teams of recent years. The crowds at Cameron have become accustomed to a team that destroys the will of its opponent. Since the middle of the 2009 season, teams that come to campus have been methodically stripped of the idea that winning is possible over the course of a game. This season, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

It would seem that the natural progression would be for Duke to have learned its lesson from the Florida State game. But again, against the Red Storm, there was a letdown. The Blue Devils allowed 47 points while scoring only 38 in the second half as St. John’s stormed back. So what will it take to get Duke to play with an edge?

The theories on how to develop an attitude of relentless pursuit of victory are rather extensive. Some say it has to come from the coach, some say it comes from experience, and some say if the players don’t instinctually possess that attitude they can never develop it. In the case of the Blue Devils, there is no question the coach has that attitude, and for Krzyzewski it may be just as strong as ever before. Some players display the instinct on occasion but not consistently, and despite some mental lapses and turnover issues it seems as though freshman Austin Rivers has the most developed winning instinct on the team.

So that leaves experience. Maybe too many of these players are just too used to winning. Almost all of them were highly-rated recruits coming out of high school, playing for top programs that rarely lost. They know how to win, but do they really feel something when they lose? Do they have a sense of mutual determination to never lose again?

That remains to be seen. If they don’t have it, they’re going to find themselves on the losing end of a few more games this season—and an early exit in March may be on the horizon.


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