What to say about this season?

It may be years before the true implications of the 2013-14 season come into focus for Duke.
It may be years before the true implications of the 2013-14 season come into focus for Duke.

Mike Krzyzewski sat down yesterday for a rare end-of-season press conference. He spoke about the season’s disappointing conclusion: the team’s second NCAA tournament Round of 64 exit in three years. He spoke about the need for more leadership, both on the court and from him. He spoke about the conference’s glory days: “The greatest basketball I’ve ever seen in the conference was in the '80s.” He spoke of his greatest regret as a coach in the last five years… not redshirting Ryan Kelly.

After the Mercer loss, I tried to cobble together a column on this season but struggled to reach any conclusion. Is there anything to say, a lesson to be learned? Maybe about one-and-dones not working for Duke’s system? No. Sure, the years with Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker ended too early, but as Krzyzewski said, the narrative about one-and-dones would be awfully different had Kyrie Irving stayed healthy in 2010-11.

Yet as Krzyzewski reflected on this season and years past, I couldn’t help but think about a gem of wisdom from the most didactic professor I’ve had at Duke.

As he handed out course evaluations, as is required at the end of every semester, he proceeded to tell us how stupid they were: How can you evaluate the importance, virtues and lessons from a course immediately after taking it? Your evaluation would have more perspective and value, he said, if you could fill it out after you graduated. Then you could fill out another at your five-year reunion. Then on your wedding day, then when you have kids. This would continue until you lay on your deathbed, when you would be handed one final course evaluation. If you could remember anything about the course in that ultimate moment, doesn’t that say a whole lot more than the cluttered impressions from today?

To me, it is still too early to know how I will remember the 2013-14 season. All I can feel now is the disappointment, but how will I remember it in five years?

The 2011-12 season is an inevitable comparison for this one: In both years, a Duke team, led by a star freshman we figure to be a one-and-done, got bounced as a top-three seed during the first song of the Big Dance.

Duke's loss to Lehigh marred the end of the 2011-12 campaign, but Austin Rivers' buzzer-beating game-winner against North Carolina remains that season's lasting image.
Despite the disappointment from the 2011 NCAA tournament, my strongest memory from that season will always be The Rivers Shot. With 11 seconds left, he began taking the ball down the court. With five seconds left he curled around Mason Plumlee’s pick. With three seconds left he stepped back from the 3-point line and stared down a mismatched Tyler Zeller. Then he took a slight step forward and hit the first game-winning buzzer beater in Duke-North Carolina history.

While the Duke-Syracuse games this year were amazing—and I suspect Jim Boeheim’s ejection will be a tale told for a long time—there is no matching memory from this season. But there has to be something else here other than the pangs of defeat.

Krzyzewski said he doesn’t like to judge the program in one-year snapshots. He looks at five-year periods, but how about four? The 2006-07 season was the worst in recent memory as the Blue Devils entered the NCAA tournament with a No. 6 seed and lost in the first round to VCU. During ACC play that year, Duke lost four games in a row and fell out of the rankings. In a 2012 TV special “Leadership for Life—Coach K’s Golden Edge” Jon Scheyer discussed this rough patch and how discouraged the freshman class was. Scheyer says Krzyzewski told them that if they continued to do what they were doing, they’d win a national championship before they left.

“I don't think our seniors could have predicted this, anywhere near this kind of success through our career, just based on how our freshman year went,” center Brian Zoubek said after Duke beat Butler for the 2010 national championship.

This isn’t to say Duke is guaranteed a championship in 2017 (or next year for that matter) but our memory of this season will evolve as the program evolves in the next few years.

And as Krzyzewski looks forward to next year and why the leadership may be stronger, he said it begins with this year’s conclusion.

“Sometimes you learn more from losing: Why did you lose?” Krzyzewski said.

Any obituary of this season is incomplete without waiting to see how its legacy shapes future seasons. Even Krzyzewski sounded different yesterday: The man who has written books and been in TV specials about his leadership ability addressed his own need to better cultivate leadership on the team.

So give me a year or three until I can draw a conclusion from this Duke season. Or ask me on my deathbed when I’m filling out course evaluations.


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