RALEIGH — The most telling sign that something had gone horribly wrong for Duke in the past six months came with nine minutes, five seconds remaining in the Blue Devils’ 78-71 loss to Mercer in a second-round NCAA tournament game Thursday.
That’s when coach Mike Krzyzewski started subbing Jabari Parker out for defense.
At the beginning, Duke was holding onto a tenuous 54-51 lead, but that was gone fewer than two minutes later. So as the Blue Devils were attempting a comeback to save their season, the player they had designed their offense around – the one with the ability to take a rebound the length of the floor and finish at the other end – spent a significant amount of time on the bench, unable to guard the unheralded Atlantic Sun champions.
With Duke up 63-60, Parker wasn’t on the floor when a Mercer miss led to an immediate transition to offense, and, as the shot clock wound down, Rasheed Sulaimon airballed a 3. The lead was gone for good on the next possession. Mercer scored on nine of its 10 final possessions, shooting 55.6 percent for the game.
“I knew they were a good team,” the Blue Devils’ Rodney Hood said afterward, “but I thought I’d be playing basketball after today.”
It wasn’t supposed to end like this for the Blue Devils, not when the team was designed in the spirit of the past two Olympic teams, ideally high-flying and athletic, with a stifling pressure defense.
That’s how it looked on paper when Duke was voted the preseason No. 4 team. But that’s not how it played out on the court, with Friday’s loss in the round of 64 the culminating moment in a deeply frustrating season.
Thursday, before Duke’s second opening game exit in the past three years – the other occasion featured the one-and-done, Austin Rivers-led squad – Krzyzewski had been asked about Duke’s defense, specifically how it he had adjusted to having an average defense.
“For a younger team to play really good defense, I think they have to feel the sense of urgency more,” Krzyzewski said. “A veteran team can feel it, but their habits are already grounded. When they get tired, a veteran team gets tired, it reverts to its best habit, which is probably good defense.
“A younger team, when it gets tired, reverts back to an old habit, which is not playing. And that’s kind of our team. It has nothing to do with attitude or anything like that. It has to do with being a human being and human nature and how long you get a chance to play together.”
Krzyzewski will get another crack at teaching a young team to play defense next year, when Duke welcomes four more McDonald’s All-Americans to campus: center Jahlil Okafor, point guard Tyus Jones, shooting guard Grayson Allen and forward Justise Winslow.
Seniors Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston, Andre Dawkins and former walk-on Todd Zafirovski depart. Krzyzewski all but announced sophomore Rodney Hood’s intention to leave early for the NBA last week after the Clemson win when he said, with a resigned tone, “I wish we had him for more than one year.”
And don’t be fooled by Parker’s comments about his “incomplete” career yesterday – with the next question, he admitted that the emotions of the moment were playing into his response – because the staff has been planning for his departure all along.
In the two years Duke has been led by one-and-done players, the Blue Devils have two opening-game exits to show for their seasons (Kyrie Irving’s injury in 2010-11 robbed the experiment of a third data point).
“We have to try to get the best players,” Krzyzewski said Thursday when asked about the one-and-done model vs. the Mercer model, with five starting seniors. “And then we adjust accordingly.
“For us, we would like to contend for a national championship each year. I’m not saying you can do that, but you would like to attempt to do that. That’s a lofty goal. So then you’re judged – we’re judged by that lofty goal that we set for ourselves.”
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley