DURHAM — Duke is arguably coming off its strongest performance of the ACC season, an offensive masterpiece against then-No. 14 North Carolina.
But it’s hard to trust that the Blue Devils will replicate that performance over three straight days in Greensboro at the ACC tournament – after all, Saturday’s win was preceded by the befuddling loss at Wake Forest.
That loss had something in common with the other losses No. 7 Duke (24-7) had: the Blue Devils lost a lead during the second half. Against the Deacons, it seemed to be a commanding lead at 66-59 with 5 minutes, 44 seconds to go. But Wake Forest went on a 17-0 run as Duke folded.
“We can play with anybody, but, with that same token, we’re a team that when everyone doesn’t bring it or we’re not playing as a cohesive unit, we can be beat,” Duke’s Amile Jefferson said. “It’s something that we have to have, kind of like a chip on our shoulder. Play angry and know that if we’re not there, if everyone is not committed to the same goal, that we’re not as good of a team as we can be.”
There haven’t been many chips on many Duke teams’ shoulders during the recent past, but for this inconsistent group, anger might just be its best motivator. Some Blue Devils squads have thrived on hostile road environments – this team is 7-7 away from home.
So in the absence of feeding off that negative energy – something that might come easier to veteran squads, which this group is not – Duke has elected to draw strength from the pain of those blown leads.
“Not wanting to feel how we felt after Clemson, after Notre Dame, after Arizona, after Wake Forest, going into that locker room and just not feeling good,” Jefferson said, recounting some low moments. “The meeting we had the next day after those games in contrast to the meeting we had after a win against Michigan, after a win against Virginia, after a big win against Carolina, we have to be angry and think about those losses we took and let those fuel us and not want to have that feeling again.”
Last season’s team, with its senior leaders – Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry, who also happened to be Duke’s best players – didn’t need to play angry. But that has been the easiest emotion to channel for this season’s inexperienced leaders.
“Yeah, there have been more growing pains” this season, redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood said. “The leaders of this year’s team, other than Tyler (Thornton), are really me and Jabari (Parker). We’re young – well, we’re not young, but it’s our first year being in that role. It’s been kind of tough, but that’s the difference between last year.
“We walked into Wake Forest and just thought they were going to lay over. Same thing with Clemson and Notre Dame; we walked into the gym thinking they were going to lay over. Same thing at Carolina, we got up and we thought we’d come out and hit some shots and then OK, it’s over.”
In each of those cases, Duke was proven wrong. In those four games, the Blue Devils played well enough to work their win probability (according to Ken Pomeroy) up to at least 85 percent. But then instead of putting opponents away, the Blue Devils relaxed.
So it makes sense to think the coaching staff has used anger, and encouraged the players to do the same. The Blue Devils need to push harder longer, channel more of a killer instinct, than they’re naturally inclined to do. Experience – seven losing experiences, in this case – is a wonderful teacher.
“We’ve got to be tough. We’ve got to be tougher,” Hood said. “Nothing is going to be easy, and winning championships isn’t going to be easy, not the ACC and definitely not the national championship. That’s when you’ve got to be your toughest, at that time when you get a lead. Naturally, you want to relax, but that’s when championship teams take off. They don’t relent.”
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley