Silver Linings in a Downpour

It’s been what–three days?  Three hours?  Three weeks?  I can’t honestly say–the 2011-12 Duke season seems like a part of the distant past, even though those last two minutes versus Lehigh are still painfully vivid in my memory.

In a word, that game was brutal–it was the doomsday scenario that most Duke fans had thought about but never seriously entertained.  A dreadful performance for the ages that was both shocking and unsurprising.  A result that was both unfair to a team that had overachieved this year and one that was exactly what the squad deserved.

Now, writing on Monday afternoon, I’m still barely coherent–there’s so much to write about this game, but almost all of the clues had been there in our previous four games. Still, I have to swallow my anger and bitterness for a little bit, and try to make the case that this loss might be what Duke needs going forward.  Without further ado, here are the five best things about Duke’s loss against Lehigh:

5. We all got to see the Lehigh cheerleaders

Whoops, guess that I’m still a little bitter.  Sorry about that.  Make that four silver linings.

4. Duke wasn’t a #1 seed

It’s strange to think that two and a half weeks ago, Duke was maybe three wins away from a top seed.  If they had snuck out a win versus the Tar Heels in Cameron–which seemed entirely possible at the time–and then either won the ACC tournament or reached the final, they would have had as good a claim as anyone to a top seed.  Why would this have been bad, though?

Because even if they had secured a #1 seed, this team was fatally flawed: offensively, they were too reliant on the three, and defensively, well, they were pretty porous.  If Duke had stolen a #1 seed, it’s entirely possible that they could still have fallen in the first round (the NCAA’s “second round”–God, this terminology is so stupid), especially given the strong performances by some #16 seeds this year.  In that case, Duke would have been in a “league of their own” in terms of tournament futility–the only #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed.  Instead, they are just one of six #2 seeds to lose their first matchup.  Six teams? That’s plenty. People will forget about this game in no time, right?

3. We didn’t play Norfolk St., or UNC-Asheville, or Ohio, or any good lower-seeded team

As far as major upsets go, Lehigh’s win over Duke was pretty subdued.  Sure, after the game the Mountain Hawks were thrilled, but during the game, it was “40 Minutes of Hell” for all involved–coaches, players, and certainly the fans.  This wasn’t Milan High playing out of their minds against Muncie Central, or Villanova shooting the lights out against Georgetown in ’85: this was two teams playing poor basketball.  Obviously Coach K wasn’t happy with how his team played, but Lehigh coach Brett Reed wasn’t pleased either.

Still, even with Lehigh’s sluggish performance, their five-point win was the biggest margin of victory ever for a #15 seed over a #2.  Imagine if Duke played Norfolk St., who was NBA JAM-hot against Missouri, or Ohio, who shot over fifty percent from the field: the Blue Devils wouldn’t have even been in the game.  Duke would have lost to almost every team in the field the way it played on Friday–fortunately, the Devils were matched up with a team that couldn’t blow them out.  The only thing worse than losing to a #15 seed is getting blown out by a #15 seed, and Duke was at least spared that indignity.

2. Austin should be coming back

Since the start of the year, it has seemed quite likely that Mr. Rivers would jump to the NBA–his game is more polished than that of most freshmen, and after his heroics versus UNC in February, he could have declared immediately and no one would have blamed him.  However, Rivers’ production has slowed down recently, and while he could have secured himself a lottery spot with a great tournament, he may have slid down draft boards instead.  Against Lehigh, he was unable to gain separation from his defenders as he’s accustomed to doing, and he failed to get to the rim with ease.  Although the defense was keying on him somewhat, he failed to make plays throughout much of the game, notching only one assist to two turnovers.  Had he been playing against the great athletes of Kentucky, this may not be such a concern for his draft stock–but against Lehigh?  That may put some doubt in the minds of NBA GMs, and increase the likelihood that he returns to Durham for another year.

(Unfortunately, the other player who may leave for the NBA early, Mason Plumlee, had a great game on Friday.  He pretty much just dunked the ball a lot–finishing 9-9 from the field–but that still made him our best player that night.  I can’t blame him for wanting to jump to the pros after that performance, but it would be a disaster for Duke, leaving us with an even more depleted frontcourt.  Let’s hope that Marshall can convince his big brother to hang around a little longer.)

1. This season is over

It was fun at times, especially during the Maui Invitational and on that one great night in February.  But for most of the year, the success Duke achieved was always tempered with the knowledge that it was unsustainable, especially in the NCAA tournament.  We saw hints of this vulnerability versus OSU in November, Temple in January, and Miami in February, before getting the message loud and clear from UNC, FSU, and Lehigh in March.  For every peak this season, there was a deeper valley, and after riding the roller coaster for five months, I think that most Duke fans had had enough.

Before the season, I was really looking forward to watching this team play.  Unlike the year before, no real expectations were put on Duke–we had lost our three best players, and UNC was receiving all of the preseason accolades.  I was tired of watching us run ball screen after ball screen for Nolan Smith down the stretch last year, and I thought that we had a chance to develop a free-flowing offense where anyone was capable of scoring 15 a night.  I thought we’d see the Plumlees develop something resembling a consistent post game and interior presence.  I thought we’d see Dawkins and Curry become more than streaky outside threats.  I thought we’d see the evolution of Austin from selfish gunner to crafty offensive leader.  Each provided the occasional fleeting glimpse of such development, but nothing more.

It’s hard to say goodbye to this season, particularly after the team bowed out so unceremoniously.  When I look back at this year, I only feel unfulfilled–maybe this team overachieved in the win-loss columns, but they rarely left fans with a feeling other than frustration.  The growth that we–fans, coaches, and players–hoped to see never really happened.  The issues that plagued this team all year were never resolved.

As Coach K said in his post-game press conference, “We’re not a juggernaut.  We’ve known this all season.”  Very true.  But the problem with this year isn’t that Duke wasn’t a juggernaut.  No, the problem is that becoming a juggernaut never seemed possible.

And for this Duke program, the question remains: when will it seem possible?

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One Response to Silver Linings in a Downpour

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  1. Rasheed says: