This was supposed to be a coronation. Instead, for Duke basketball, it’s yet another January crisis.
A year ago, the inexperienced Blue Devils came into ACC play 11-2 but unexpectedly lost two of their first three, at Notre Dame and Clemson. This season, back-to-back losses to N.C. State and Miami derailed what had been a 14-0 season.
So instead of clinching Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,000th career win at Louisville on Saturday, the Blue Devils find themselves in a similar spot to a year ago: Regrouping from some surprising and ugly losses as the conference schedule begins.
For all the talk about how this season was supposed to be different, how we could all move on from the disappointment of last season, it is no different, once again raising nagging questions about whether one-and-done players are compatible with the DNA of Duke basketball.
Krzyzewski acknowledged as much in the offseason, reevaluating every aspect of his program, from practices to the basics of how defense is taught. And yet here’s another young team struggling to find its way in midseason, troubles characterized by a complete and utter collapse at the defensive end.
Jahlil Okafor was expected to paper over any of those problems because of his ability to defend the rim, but of the many things he excels at, it turns out blocking shots isn’t really one of them, at least not yet. He’s so polished in so many ways, and yet was exceedingly ineffective on defense against both N.C. State and Miami.
The manner of the losses – opponents getting to the rim with impunity while Duke chucked 3-pointers without success – recalls the NCAA losses to Lehigh and Mercer, which were in turn foreshadowed by January swoons of varying degrees.
This is what can happen when you rely heavily on young players. January is hard. Another semester begins. Relationships begin and end. Months of practice wear heavy on the legs. The beginning of ACC play introduces new intensity and new challenges.
History has shown it takes a while to truly assimilate the principles upon which Krzyzewski has built his program. Even a precocious player like Tyus Jones was exposed by Miami’s veteran guards Tuesday. He still has two months to figure it out, but Jabari Parker never did. Meanwhile, Duke lacks the core of veteran players that characterized its last two really successful teams, the 2010 national champions and 2013’s regional finalists. (With the obvious caveat that 2011’s veteran group was thrown askew by Kyrie Irving’s injury.)
Can Duke win in the NCAA tournament with a team built around a freshman (or three) with veterans providing depth, instead of the other way around? That remains to be seen, but it didn’t work in 2012 with Austin Rivers and it didn’t work in 2014 with Jabari Parker.
It’s a little severe to say Krzyzewski’s putting his legacy at risk, but it’s fitting that this sudden and not entirely unexpected losing streak has stalled Krzyzewski’s quest for 1,000. Even with a win at Louisville, which now seems rather improbable given Duke’s recent struggles, the earliest Krzyzewski can clinch the milestone is Jan. 25 at St. John’s – appropriate nevertheless given he recorded his record 903rd win on the Madison Square Garden Floor three seasons ago.
This is not how it was supposed to go. The Blue Devils were rolling along, undefeated, winners of all but one game by double digits. They cleared their biggest hurdle, at Wisconsin, with ease. They shook off the defending national champions without their best effort. All was going swimmingly.
Duke’s latest adventure down the one-and-done route had promising early returns, but questions are being raised now. The real answers will come in March.