Jacobs: Duke’s season more of a struggle than usual

March 23, 2014 

Try as they might, Mike Krzyzewski’s 2014 Blue Devils couldn’t retain the elusive qualities that unite and empower superior teams. As a result, the coach with 983 career wins, 82 in NCAA tournament competition – each total more than any man in major-college history – struggled through a season that didn’t live up to program standards.

Along the way Krzyzewski, 67, suffered a devastating personal loss, and dizziness on the sidelines at Wake Forest in early March that sent him to Duke Hospital for a battery of tests. Despite getting a clean bill of health, Krzyzewski was not well during the ACC tournament, nearly losing his voice even as his team fell to Virginia in the final.

The cluster of difficulties sparked speculation that Krzyzewski might retire, a prospect the 34-year Duke coach dismissed on the eve of the NCAAs. “Every college coach expends a lot of emotional energy during the season,” he said before facing Mercer. “A number of coaches have things that happen in their family lives … just like other people, lawyers, doctors, businesspeople. You just have to be able to handle that. That’s part of that thing called life, I guess, is what they call it.”

Confronted by multiple challenges, this year’s gifted Blue Devils, predicted to finish first in the ACC, wound up tied for third. They entered postseason with more losses (seven) than at any time since 2007. “There are more opportunities to lose with this team,” Krzyzewski acknowledged late in the year. Then, for the second time in three seasons, Duke was eliminated in its first NCAA tournament game, ushered from the national stage in a stunning upset.

Krzyzewski first voiced his concerns about what proved a fatal flaw after his Blue Devils frittered away an 11-point lead in a 74-66 loss at Chapel Hill. “There was something missing,” he offered, less as a criticism than a pained observation. “We didn’t have ‘it.’ Wherever the hell that thing is, in the second half, ‘it’ wasn’t in our huddle.”

Nor was “it” on the floor, where Duke forced only four turnovers in the second period and scored 15 points in the final 15:07. “We didn’t have life,” Krzyzewski said that night in mid-February. “No matter what we did in a timeout, we just didn’t have that spark. That spark, the anger, the emotion – the thing that you have to have to match what their crowd, their team is doing.”

Absence of cohesion

The intermittent presence of what Krzyzewski later characterized as “shared effort, shared character” haunted the Hall of Fame coach and his squad all season.

The absence of the confidence and cohesion necessary to overcome in-game adversity, the ability to maintain poise and marshal aggression in the face of challenging circumstances, resulted in depleted second-half leads in defeats by Kansas, Arizona, Notre Dame, Clemson, UNC and Wake. Even in home victories over Vermont, Virginia, Maryland and Syracuse, the inexperienced Blue Devils melted down the stretch like ice on a hot day. “We were never able to close in those situations,” said assistant Jeff Capel. “That was another thing that was very frustrating.”

Throughout Duke’s NCAA loss to Mercer, when a late 5-point lead evaporated, Krzyzewski vainly implored his players, with varying degrees of ferocity, to take the attack to the defense, to “drive the ball!” in keeping with the game plan. Yet, with few exceptions, that did not happen. The Blue Devils remained a deferential, jump shooting squad that ventured infrequently to the foul line because 37 of its 62 field goal tries were 3-pointers (they made 15). Perhaps most notably, superlative ACC Rookie of the Year Jabari Parker was lured into settling primarily for jumpers, and missed 10 of 14 shots. “It was weird, man, the whole thing was weird,” Capel said.

For all that, Duke was most deficient on defense. Prior to the season Krzyzewski boasted of his team’s uncommon athleticism and interchangeable parts. He expected to extend defensive pressure with a greater array of capable players, an assertive switch from recent years calculated to create more open-court offensive opportunities.

But Duke soon resorted to a more conservative containment strategy, thwarted by an inability to protect the rim. Even so, the defense never quite clicked. The Blue Devils generally defeated teams by outscoring them, leading the ACC in many offensive categories en route to 26 wins.

Sobering picture

At the other end of the court, they often appeared to be imitating a group committed to playing defense. Their last four league opponents – North Carolina at Cameron, and Clemson, N.C. State and Virginia in the ACC tournament – shot a combined 51.3 percent.

Not every squad member was ready to acknowledge the problem. In the Duke locker room the afternoon prior to the Mercer game, guard Tyler Thornton, the team’s best on-ball defender and a player Krzyzewski said “the guys listen to,” insisted the defense had been more consistent than the offense. A few feet away, fellow senior Josh Hairston readily conceded the team’s defensive limitations, revealing improvement in that area was an intense focus in practice.

Forget esoteric statistical comparisons to other teams to measure Duke’s intermittent defense in 2014. Comparing this squad to its predecessors paints a sobering picture.

Overall, opponents made 45.6 percent of their shots, best against the Blue Devils in more than two decades. Duke forced a measly 12.1 turnovers per game, worst of Krzyzewski’s tenure. The Devils practice avoiding a seventh team foul per half lest they send an opponent to the line; they committed 19.5 personals a game in 2014, worst at the school since 2003. Opponents also made more free throws (15.0) than at any time since 2003. Not surprisingly, no Blue Devil made the ACC coaches’ all-defensive team.

“It was frustrating for all of us,” said Capel, who played at Duke from 1994-97 and returned to join the coaching staff for the 2012 season. “I’m sure, if you talked to Coach, he would say the program, the foundation has always been defense. I think when most people think of Duke, basketball people, they think of defense. They think of teams that are smacking the floor and taking charges, things like that.”

Further coloring the season, Krzyzewski dealt with the unanticipated late-December death of his brother Bill, a retired captain in the Chicago fire department and the last surviving member of his birth family. In mid-January the coach told outsiders to blame the team’s deficiencies on his temporarily wavering concentration.

Capel saw things differently. The “very, very emotional year” off the court didn’t change Krzyzewski’s intensity or how he did his job, said the former 9-year head coach. “He was himself,” Capel noted. “Obviously he dealt with something this year he was not prepared for. It was unexpected and I don’t think anyone could be prepared for. That knocked him back. As far as being there for the guys and coaching them up and the things he did when I was in school, he was there.”

Unfortunately Krzyzewski and company lost enough of their touch so “it” was not there as well.

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