Austin Rivers has been frustrated watching Duke start the season as a No. 1 ranked team and national title contender and then tumble almost out of the top 25.
Rivers, a 6-4 guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, knows what it’s like to play for Duke, from incredible highs to devastating lows.
During the 2011-12 season, Rivers’ lone season with the Blue Devils, he hit a 3-point buzzer-beater to stun North Carolina at the Smith Center in one of the storied rivalry’s most memorable shots.
That same season, the Blue Devils lost in their first game of the NCAA tournament, as a No. 2 seed, to No. 15 Lehigh. It was the biggest upset in Duke’s postseason history and Rivers’ only NCAA tournament game.
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The Blue Devils went 27-7 and 13-3 in the ACC that season and were in the top 10 the entire way. Three of those losses (to Florida State, Miami and UNC), however, were at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
This season has been the same kinds of ups and downs for No. 21 Duke (17-5, 5-4 ACC).
“They almost lost to Wake Forest,” Rivers said Saturday. “They should be beating those teams by 20, 30 points.”
Injuries to almost every player in Duke’s rotation, including fifth-year forward Amile Jefferson, freshman forward Marques Bolden, freshman forward Jayson Tatum and sophomore forward Chase Jeter – and even coach Mike Krzyzewski, who had back surgery on Jan. 6 – are no excuse.
“They should understand that they should have a deep enough team no matter who’s out there,” Rivers said. “They just need to step up. All those guys were McDonald’s All-Americans.”
Rivers also knows what it’s like for potential one-and-done players like Tatum and freshmen forward Harry Giles. In 2012, Rivers was named the ACC Rookie of the Year, then was picked 10th overall by New Orleans in the NBA draft.
“They just need to live in the moment,” Rivers said. “Those guys all have bright futures. Those guys need to understand that (the NBA is) going to be there. They need to handle what’s going on right now and just play for each other, play to win, and everything’s going to take care of itself.”
Rivers wasn’t surprised when Krzyzewski banned the Duke players from the locker room and wouldn’t allow them to wear Duke gear in public after the Blue Devils lost three out of four games, including an 84-82 home loss to N.C. State on Jan. 23.
“They benched me one game,” Rivers said. “I remember the next year they did the same thing to Jabari Parker. They do so many things to motivate kids. Especially a lot of those kids who might go to the NBA (after the season), they try to keep those kids present. Their mindset (needs to be) you have to handle business here, not only for yourself but also for the betterment of the whole program.”
Luke Kennard, a 6-6, 202-pound sophomore guard, is playing 34.5 minutes a game and is averaging 20.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. But Rivers says he could be doing more.
“Kennard has been their best player, so he needs to step up and lead them vocally, not just with his play, because he’s playing great,” Rivers said.
Giles, like Rivers, came to Duke as one of the nation’s top recruits. However, Giles had two major knee injuries in high school and missed his senior season. He had knee surgery after arriving at Duke and didn’t appear in a college game until the Blue Devils’ 65-55 win over Tennessee State on Dec. 19.
“He hasn’t been himself. He’s still not himself. He’s a fraction of what he could be. I don’t think he should have come back (for this season),” Rivers said of Giles. “It’s hard to tell him no. He hasn’t played basketball in two years, he goes to Duke and he sees those big games, why wouldn’t he want to play? So I can’t get mad at Harry for wanting to play those games.
Rivers says the key for the Duke players is to not regret in five years that this talented team didn’t reach its full potential. It’s a feeling, he said, that stays with him.
“I was on a talented team that lost (in the) first round to Lehigh,” Rivers said. “And granted everything worked out, I’m living the life, I’m achieving my dreams and goals. But no doubt about it, I watch March Madness and go, ‘Man, I wish I would have went far.’ You hold on to that kind of stuff. So you don’t ever want to look back at stuff like that. I think they need to realize that.”
Krzyzewski returning to coach Duke this Saturday
DURHAM Mike Krzyzewski is ready to return to coach the Duke Blue Devils.
The Hall of Fame coach will return Saturday for Duke’s game against Pittsburgh after he missed seven games while recovery from Jan. 6 back surgery.
Associate head coach Jeff Capel coached the Blue Devils during Krzyzewski’s absence, leading Duke to a 4-3 record.
The No. 21-ranked Blue Devils (17-5, 5-4 ACC) won road games over Wake Forest and Notre Dame last Saturday and Monday.