Duke players struggle to explain the inconsistent season

lkeeley@newsobserver.comMarch 21, 2014 

— It is a question that Mike Krzyzewski surely will ponder many times during the offseason.

Why was this Duke team unable to reach its potential?

In the immediate aftermath of the 78-71 loss to Mercer, senior Tyler Thornton came the closest to answering it.

"The main thing was consistency," Thornton said. "When you’ve got a younger team, a less experienced team, your consistency is probably your biggest issue. We played hard, the guys played hard, but we just weren’t able to put it together for 40 minutes. That’s pretty much it."

Undoubtedly, inexperience hurt the Blue Devils, as Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood struggled mightily in their NCAA tournament debut, going a combined 6-of-24 (25 percent) for 20 points. Parker went 6-of-7 from the free throw line. Hood didn’t make it there at all.

Still, Parker was one of the most naturally gifted players to ever come to Durham, and Hood spent last year practicing with the team. The duo was also surrounded by more experienced players — sophomores Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, junior Quinn Cook and Thornton, primarily.

Jefferson, when asked, also pointed to age and experience, at least when it came to Friday’s defeat.

"I just think we were beat by an older team,” he said, “And they were able to run their sets, and we were never able to get stops."

For the season, Duke’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating — a measure of how many points per 100 possessions the Blue Devils would give up to an average offense — was 102.2. That ranked 116th nationally Friday evening. The previous low-water mark for Duke’s defense, 2011-12, had a rating of 96.4.

The Blue Devils countered that defensive unit, though, with the nation’s second-most efficient offense, scoring an average of 124.1 points per 100 possessions. It wasn’t enough.

This was a team that was supposed to resemble past Krzyzewski-coached Olympic squads, high-flying and athletic. It didn’t happen.

But back to the original question posed to the players: Why was this Duke team unable to reach its potential?

"I couldn’t tell you, I don’t have the slightest clue," Sulaimon said.

Hood was similarly perplexed.

"I don’t know," he said "If I did, I would have tried to change it. I just don’t know."

Parker offered one last theory, also focusing on the game just lost.

"The other team wanted it more," he said. "From now on, it can’t happen any more, not for our program. We’ve got to have more pride."

Parker, like the rest of the Blue Devils, was clearly upset, not making eye contact and trying not to cry. This team didn’t have fragile egos like the Austin Rivers squad, and it also didn’t have the chemistry issues that would come along with that problem. Mike Krzyzewski liked his team, even if he couldn’t coax the desired results out of them. And after the game, he thanked them.

“We’re a great group, great group of kids. We all stayed together through everything that we went through this year,” Quinn Cook said, calling to mind the difficult aftermath of the Dec. 26 death of Krzyzewski’s older brother, Bill. “He specifically thanked the seniors, all four of them, for just being a part of the program. Just thanked everybody.”

Still, leaving PNC Arena, it was hard to imagine what could have been.

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