The potential of Duke being .500 at the end of January was not a topic of conversation entering the season.
But through 10 games this year, the Blue Devils have been an utter disappointment. Without a quality win so far and a challenging ACC slate ahead, Duke is on the verge of missing the NCAA tournament. While many view this season as an unprecedented low in the modern era of Duke basketball, it actually bears many similarities to the last time the Blue Devils missed the NCAA tournament in 1995.
Let’s go back to that 1994-95 campaign, when head coach Mike Krzyzewski missed the final 19 games due to back surgery and Duke fumbled down the stretch en route to a 13-18 final record. During their nonconference slate that season, the Blue Devils lost at the hands of two major conference opponents in Connecticut and Iowa, falling out of the AP Top 10 by ACC play. Sound familiar?
And once conference play began, the wheels came off for Duke. Six straight losses during January proved to be fatal, a losing streak that this year’s Blue Devils have to avoid by beating one of Georgia Tech, Clemson or Miami in the coming week.
You may think that, considering the talent present on the roster, this year’s team is an even bigger disappointment. But are we really sure that the 1994-95 team didn’t have a similar talent level? Cherokee Parks, Jeff Capel and Trajan Langdon, the top three scorers on that 1994-95 club, were current or future All-ACC caliber players. When you juxtapose those three with Matthew Hurt, DJ Steward and Jalen Johnson, the resemblance in terms of pure ability is apparent.
The caveat here is that, as previously mentioned, Coach K missed the final 19 games of that 1994-95 campaign. In fact, those Blue Devils went 9-3 in the games Krzyzewski roamed the sideline. But this year's team can't use that excuse.
Rather, it's the little things that appear to be the main dilemma this season. Championship-level teams make their presence felt not just with high-flying dunks or accuracy from beyond the arc, but also with the stuff that doesn’t get mentioned by the casual observer. These types of teams don’t just do these smaller tasks sometimes, they do it on every possession of every game. Space the floor? Check. Help the helper on dribble drives? Check. Close out to corner shooters? Check. I think you get the point. This year’s Blue Devils have checked all these boxes during various spurts this season, but with a schedule that has featured two Big Ten contenders and a deeper ACC, sometimes just fails to cut it.
Looking back on everything that’s transpired this season, from an array of schedule changes to the Jalen Johnson injury, having a year filled with disappointment shouldn’t be a shock. Furthermore, Duke followed up that 1994-95 season with two Final Four appearances over the next six seasons, a sign that the program can easily bounce back from the doldrums.
Keeping things in perspective might help the Blue Devil faithful deal with a down year. In the parity-filled world of college basketball, stretches of dominance are tough to sustain without blips on the radar. Whether this is one of those blips, or Duke finds a way to turn around this season, remains to be seen.
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