DURHAM — One word to describe Duke’s season so far.
“Crazy,” senior Josh Hairston said. “Not in a bad sense, because I think this team hasn’t even reached our full potential yet. We’ve won big games, and we’ve lost some really bad games. Through the course of our season thus far, we’ve learned that we can compete and play and beat anybody, and we can lose to anybody as well.
“That’s really with a lot of teams in the country this year. And so the teams that can buckle down, grow up, and grow up fast and learn about themselves will be the teams that are successful this month.”
Hairston went on to say that Wednesday’s loss at Wake Forest was the worst of the year and it never should have happened. No. 4 Duke (23-7, 12-5 ACC) came out flat and lacking the motivation to handle its weaker opponent. There should be no problem getting up for the next game, the regular-season finale Saturday at 9 p.m. against No. 14 North Carolina (23-7, 13-4).
Until the Blue Devils folded down the stretch of the game at UNC on Feb. 20 – the Tar Heels had a win probability of 8.8 percent when they trailed 51-40 with 15:01 left – Duke had been the nation’s third-best 3-point shooting team, making 41.6 percent of its long-range attempts. Since then, in the games against UNC, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, the Blue Devils are just 21.4 percent (28-of-103) from 3-point range.
All those misses have contributed to long scoring droughts during Duke’s past two losses. Against UNC, the Blue Devils went nearly nine minutes without a field goal, watching an 11-point lead shrink to four before the Tar Heels pulled away. And Wednesday at Wake, the Blue Devils were up seven points with 5:44 left in the game – the Deacons had just a 5.2 percent win probability, according to statistician Ken Pomeroy – and didn’t hit another field goal until there were just 40 seconds left, a Rasheed Sulaimon dunk to cut the deficit to eight.
“In those moments, we’ve got to share the ball more,” Tyler Thornton said. “At the same time, we can’t let that affect our defense. We went through those droughts when we were up, and we just weren’t getting stops, and it just kind of steamrolled.”
The Blue Devils have lacked strong on-court leadership in those moments, too, a player capable of grabbing his teammates by the collar and motivating them to fight back. Of Duke’s three captains (Hairston, Thornton and Rodney Hood), it’s Hood that plays the most and has the most ability.
Hood clearly takes his leadership role seriously, speaking about it often after games. But maybe he’s trying too hard to be someone he’s not.
“One of the problems that Rodney has had thus far is that he’s trying to talk a little too much instead of worrying about just playing,” Hairston said. “That’s what we need him to do. We don’t need him to try to be all over the place. Obviously he is one of our captains, but, at the end of the day, we need Rodney to give everything he has on offense and defense and not as much trying to vocally lead as well, just because that’s not something that he’s comfortable with.
“But he’s fiery. Today in practice, we had a short little let-up for a little bit, and he got on guys.”
The Blue Devils are still a work in progress, trying to get the right mix. The optimist would look at the abundant talent on the roster and see the potential. The alarmist would look at the collapse at Wake Forest, remember the collapse at UNC and recall earlier losses to Clemson and Notre Dame and wonder if the team will play more than one weekend in the NCAA tournament.
All of this will work itself out soon. But potential only matters if one capitalizes on it.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley