The Dukes of Spazzard

Coming into Tuesday night’s game against Ohio State, Duke fans had a few reasons to be concerned. The team had just finished a particularly exhausting series of five games in nine days, and it was the team’s first game on the road against a very good and very experienced team that had to date swallowed every team in its path. Personally, I found the spectre of facing the ghost of Greg Paulus to be the most frightening thing about facing OSU. After he was shown wearing what looked like his father’s Thursday suit, I had to work quite hard to fight off the nausea.

It looked so wrong to see him on a basketball court again, especially since I thought I had seen the last of him inspiring terrible Duke performances. Would his mere presence mean the team was bound to underwhelm? Would Seth Curry start backing into his defenders after crossing half court? Would we see Austin Rivers throwing himself into Lebron James’ lap in futile pursuit of an errant football style pass from Andre Dawkins? Would we see Jared Sullinger soar from the free-throw line and throw down a sick jam, obstructed only by a pathetically flopping Tyler Thornton? I was mentally preparing myself for a particularly Paulusian performance on all accounts – what I thought to be the worst case scenario.

You see, if I turn my back to him, he can't swat the ball away. Also, I can't see the rest of the court.

As much as I would like to blame the loss on Paulus, it’s clear that the Buckeyes would have crushed Duke even without the aid of his AvidVideo skills. (Something tells me he’s using a lot of star-wipes. Also, fist metaphors.) The team was probably exhausted and understandably had a hard time playing in front of crowd that looked and sounded like they were cheering on the execution of Osama Bin Laden. We’ve seen Seth wet the bed like this before, specifically last year on the road at Virginia tech, in a game where he was supposed to shine. Dawkins routinely disappears, and it shouldn’t have been too shocking to see Kelly give such an uninspired performance. Despite his wispy beard and recent performances, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re still talking about this guy:

Why yes, I would love a Twizzler!

Although Mason and Baby Doc did end up with nice individual numbers, to be fair I don’t think we can take any statistics from the second half seriously. Coach Mike sat most of the starters, and the game was well in hand at that point. It was to see Hairston play well, but just as he looks like Shelden Williams’ baby brother, Josh will only be the Super to Shelden’s Landlord.

The truth is, we should have been able to see this coming. Not just because Duke is young, and doesn’t have a true point guard, and Ohio State is much much better, but Duke has often struggled in out-of conference road games, especially in November and December. It seems sort of obvious to say it out loud, because games on the road are obviously more difficult than ones at home or on neutral sites, but it’s interesting to see how few Duke has even scheduled, and how pathetically they have performed in some.

Last season, Duke played just three out of conference road games, and none were in truly hostile environments. In November, they handily beat the Ducks of Oregon in front of Kyle Singler’s army of Aryan cousins. In December, they took down UNC-G in at the Greensboro Colliseum in front of the entire UNC-G fanbase and 19,985 Duke fans. The only non-conference road loss came in January to St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, or “Cameron North” if you think you’re hilarious. I was at that game, and while there were tons of smug Duke fans in striped shirts and New Balance sneakers, the Red Weathermen (which is what I’m assuming St. John’s fans call themselves) dominated the crowd and were more than pleased at how their team proceeded to wipe the floor with those snotty brats.

During the championship season, Duke lost its first ACC/Big Ten/ESPN Challenge game ever against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, and was humiliated in front of the president by Georgetown. The only other non conference games that could be considered ‘road’ games were UConn at the Garden and Iowa State at the United Center. The Cyclones were only scheduled as the perfect foil for Jon Scheyer to impress his family with his dazzling behind the back passes, lay-ups and spastic facial expressions.

That was a big fucking steal!

In December 2008, Duke had a strong win at Purdue, an embarrassing loss at Michigan and a narrow 7-point win at St. John’s. The Michigan loss was particularly frustrating, because they had handily beat Michigan in front of a neutral/pro-Duke crowd at MSG just weeks earlier. Going any further back would require reviewing the seasons that shall not be mentioned, but what we have so far should show that Duke has often underwhelmed in non-conference road games. Since the program has obviously noticed this, and done little to change it that to schedule fewer of them, it stands to reason that they don’t care.

Mike Krzyzewski apologists will tell you that he favors playing well on neutral courts over playing well on the road, and to be fair, both the ACC and NCAA tournaments are played in large stadia a la MSG and Greensboro. So maybe I’m overreacting to how few of these games are played, and Duke’s lack-luster performance in them. But this assumes that tournament success is your bottom line. While I acknowledge that is the case for the program, and probably most fans, it’s a pretty crappy way to enjoy following a team. I’ve grown to accept and pretty much expect post season disappointment. This wisdom probably comes from attending duke from 04-08. I try to appreciate each season as it if is a TV show – who cares if the finale is disappointing? Most of the fun is watching what happens during each week’s episode(s). When will that new hot shot Austin ever grow up? Will the sexual tension between Nolan and Kyrie ever blossom into something more? Will Marshall Plumlee crumble under the pressure of the underwhelming shadow his brothers have cast? The team’s characters are also more vibrant and colorful (probably because they are actual people). Coach K is the cranky patriarch who can’t be pleased (but seems to have lightened up in his old age). Paulus was eager to please son who could never quite succeed. Wojo is the beloved cast member from a different era who was brought back to boost ratings. And so on.

In this analogy, Mason is Vince, the supposedly talented younger brother, while Miles is Drama, the older and somehow less successful brother. Kyle is Turtle, Scheyer is Ari (duh) and Nolan is too cool to have ever appeared on that show.

Unfortunately, it seems like the best non-conference road games we’ll see Duke play will be as part of The Challenge, as the trend seems to be to steer away from these games. Duke and Georgetown’s home-and-homes are now over, and we may have seen the end of the exciting UK-UNC series with ACC expansion making conference games harder to schedule around. Is it selfish for me to ask for more non-conference road games? Yes, but I don’t think I’m alone. Maybe it’s the temporarily exiled NBA fans who can only tolerate games between highly ranked teams this early in the year driving the demand, but it can only be good for the teams to play competitive games in hostile environments, even if some people think they benefit more from playing in sterile crowds and neutral courts. It might sound odd for a Duke fan to be asking for more games like last Tuesday’s, but I think we learn a lot more about the team (and the team learns more about itself) from those games than they will annihilating from Colorado State Wednesday night.

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