Despite great record, Duke team had its share of struggles

jdaly@newsobserver.comMarch 17, 2012 

— Despite the compelling evidence to the contrary, Austin Rivers did not waver from his belief that this year’s Duke team was destined for big things, even after the Blue Devils’ season ended with a loss to Lehigh Friday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“We are a great team,” the freshman guard said. “We are a great team, man.”

Even at Duke’s best moments this year, like when the Blue Devils won at North Carolina or claimed the Maui Invitational title or beat Michigan State for Mike Krzyzewski’s 903rd win, there were questions about just how good Duke was.

Most of the time, the Blue Devils (27-7) could point to their record as a way of assuaging those concerns. Duke played many of the country’s best and beat just about all of them.

After the loss to Lehigh, however, there was a sense it wasn’t as much of a shock as the seeds – No. 2 losing to No. 15 – would seem to indicate.

The Blue Devils’ offense sputtered in the last two weeks without forward Ryan Kelly, who missed the last three games with a sprained right foot. Duke made 38.6 percent of its shots from the floor with Kelly unavailable, and if one adds the regular season-ending loss to UNC to the mix, the Blue Devils closed the year by hitting 22 of their last 93 3-point attempts (23.6 percent).

Exacerbating the situation, Duke never had a player who could consistently create his own shot to get the team out of such offensive ruts.

“We’re not a juggernaut or anything like that,” Krzyzewski said. “We have known that throughout the whole season.”

Miles Plumlee, the lone senior on the team, had the most experience of the players with different Duke incarnations. He sensed something was amiss with this bunch coming into the NCAA tournament.

“I don’t think we fully developed the identity we needed going in to this tournament,” Plumlee said. “When you’re not strong together, you’re going to fall apart.”

Even with that recognition, it was hard for Plumlee to know what to do to change the trajectory of the season.

“You just try to stay as positive as you can with changes to our lineup,” Plumlee said. “The way we were playing the last couple weeks – I don’t know; it didn’t feel so great. Then you come out here and it didn’t come together.”

The Blue Devils will now have to wait over what could be an eventful next couple months to see how next year’s team comes together.

Miles Plumlee is the only player who is guaranteed not to be around, although there is some question about whether Rivers and possibly Mason Plumlee will return.

Rivers said after Friday’s game that the disappointing loss will not affect whether he declares for the NBA draft.

“I said at the beginning of the year I had one thing in my mind and that was to win – to do everything I could to help Duke win,” Rivers said. “And to lose in the first round – we failed. I failed. As far as what I’m going to do, this doesn’t affect it at all. These are my brothers. I’m going to be best friends with these dudes the rest of my life. I’m not even worried about what I’m doing right now. We lost.”

There also might be turnover on the Blue Devils’ coaching staff.

Chris Collins is believed to be in consideration for the vacancy at Illinois, and he said Thursday he’d be interested in the job if the Illini approached him. He could also be a top choice at Northwestern if the Wildcats opt to replace Bill Carmody.

Krzyzewski, meanwhile, will be busy most of the summer with his U.S. Olympic team responsibilities.

As far as new faces, the only Blue Devils high school senior who is committed to come to Duke next season is Rasheed Sulaimon, a top-ranked shooting guard. Scout.com lists his height at 6-foot-4, so he will not necessarily give Duke what it missed most this season – a perimeter player or small forward with the height and athleticism to match up against athletic wings while also creating his own offense.

If Rivers heads to the NBA, Sulaimon will be counted on to provide an immediate boost to a perimeter that sagged when Andre Dawkins went through his late-season struggles.

Duke is still involved with a couple of other high-profile recruits, most notably small forward Shabazz Muhammad, power forward Amile Jefferson and center Tony Parker. Two members of this year’s freshmen class, Marshall Plumlee and Alex Murphy, redshirted, and Duke will be anxious to see what they can do next season in game situations.

On Friday night, however, any talk of Murphy or Marshall Plumlee seemed distant and remote.

Instead, the current Blue Devils’ players wondered what had happened to a season that seemed to hold such promise.

“I think if we knew what one thing it was, we would have addressed it,” Mason Plumlee said. “For whatever reason, we couldn’t get everybody working together. It was a tough way to lose because we had talent, we had players. It’s a tough way to lose.”

Daly: 919-829-4954

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