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Duke still in flux heading into postseason

You have given up on this team before. You gave up on the Blue Devils after they were trounced by Ohio State in November. You gave up on them after they lost two out of three home games as the calendar turned to February—and nearly lost the third game as well after a half-hearted second period against St. John’s. You gave up on them at North Carolina, when the Tar Heels led by 10 with 2:20 to play, and at halftime of the next game, when they trailed 46-30 to N.C. State.

But every time, Duke has found a way to recover. They’ve pulled off miracle last-second upsets. They’ve made the single biggest comeback of head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s storied career. Somehow, they’ve held it together en route to 26 wins and a consistent top-10 ranking.

Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, though, North Carolina made a point to remind the Blue Devils that storybook endings are not a reliable way to win.

“We just can’t put ourselves in that position,” Ryan Kelly said after the loss. “We’ve been doing it over and over again, and in the past we’ve had the resilience to come back. But that team was another level of talent, and you can’t do it against a team like that.”

The first matchup against North Carolina¬ needed to be a turning point for this team. It needed to be a rallying cry, and the Blue Devils needed to prove that they had done more than just steal a fluke win from a talented but frustrating Tar Heel squad. A 73-55 victory over Maryland in the next game seemed to promise a better future, but Saturday night saw Krzyzewski expressing the same reservations about his team that he has held since December.

“It’s like a surprise gift,” he said of his team’s play. “You open it up, and for the most part, it’s been a nice surprise, but I never have any idea what’s in there. Today, there was nothing. It was an empty box.”

The team has tried everything to find the cohesion and leadership that might help them translate a promising roster into a consistent winning team. They have given up social media for the season, they have been shown film to show illustrate the intensity of past Duke champions and they have adopted a new slogan—“One Force, One Fight”—focused on coming together. Yet the postgame comments Saturday still hinted at the continuing lack of unity and heart among the players.

“I think we kind of played inward, tentative,” Miles Plumlee said. “We can’t show up like we did today. We can’t expect it to be done individually. We can’t expect to do it 10 minutes of the game. It’s got to be 40 minutes of the game, together.”

Duke has not been led in scoring by a freshman since Johnny Dawkins did it in 1982-83. That factoid is usually thrown around in praise of Austin Rivers, who is poised to be the Blue Devils’ top scorer this season. Don’t get me wrong—Rivers deserves praise for his play, but the flip side of that coin is that Duke went 11-17 in Dawkins’ freshman season. Since then, it’s a testament to Duke that even when Krzyzewski hasn’t had the most talented teams, he has almost always had veteran leadership to turn to when things went awry. Relying on a freshman to lead is difficult, and Rivers’ inexperience in tough situations showed Saturday.

He scored 15 points, but it took 12 shots for him to get there, and he shot just 1-for-6 from beyond the arc and 4-for-7 from the free-throw line. He pulled down just one rebound, and had four turnovers and four fouls to go with his three assists. And most of all, he just wasn’t the guy with the answers when Duke needed them.

“We come out and they make shots, and I don’t even know how to describe it to you,” Rivers said. “It’s a feeling where you’re like, ‘We don’t know what’s going on. We’ve got to get this going.’”

That feeling might even be fit to describe the Blue Devils’ entire season, which has lacked rhythm and direction. Part of the problem is that Duke just does not possess the same level of skill as North Carolina, but Krzyzewski pointed out that that isn’t the only factor.

“Their talent and our demeanor is a bad mix,” Krzyzewski said. “I’d rather not say something negative about our team, because it takes away from how good they played. Yeah, if we would’ve played great…”

He trailed off, and it didn’t sound like he was prepared to finish with, “We would have beaten them.”

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