Happy Monday, TRB readers. The last time that you heard from me, my perspective was heavy on the alcohol consumption and light on the optimism. You may have feared for me due to my curious silence after the loss to Miami. Perhaps that brutal home defeat had finally been enough to send me over the edge. While you may have pictured me slumped over a bottle of Buffalo Trace, sobbing into my favorite Battier jersey, the truth is much more mundane and shamefully adult. On that particular day, I was finalizing a move to Chicago for a new job, and didn’t have time to think about the game. I don’t enjoy life’s occasional reminders that there are many things more important than sports.
This Duke team, which had been the softest, most confused team in recent memory, took the pen out of my hands with two amazing comebacks against in-state rivals. Even so, I wanted to withhold judgment about this group until I saw how they handled one of the biggest games of the year in Tallahassee. We knew how tough this game was going to be because of Florida State’s defense, their emerging star in Michael Snaer, and a hostile home crowd. Leonard Hamilton’s team certainly knows the recipe to beat the Devils. A win would have made it 3 straight, which sounds unbelievable, but is absolutely true.
(Note: I wrote the vast majority of this column before the Maryland game. I argue down below that the offense is better when we don’t throw it down low to Mason Plumlee. After he turned into a stud-muffin last night and literally won the game with his superior post play, I was forced to reevaluate everything that I wrote. However, I think it still holds up for the most part. The guards do stand around and the offense grinds to a halt when they feed him down low, and maybe that had something to do with everyone else’s poor play. Still, a win is a win, and that win was because of the offense running through Mason Plumlee.)
Duke’s first five games in the ACC have taken fans on an emotional roller coaster ride like no season that I can remember. Georgia Tech upset us because we couldn’t put away a vastly inferior opponent and make a statement after the painful loss to Temple. Virginia gave us some of our confidence back because we knew how tough they would be and watched our guys fight hard and come out victorious. Clemson brought us back to the same feelings we had about the Yellow Jackets as Duke built a lead and failed to execute down the stretch against a vulnerable team. The Wake Forest game brought back memories of teams of old as streaky 3-point shooting and a roaring crowd led Duke to crush the Demon Deacons. And then Florida State brought us crashing back down to earth as they used their always tough defense and found some hot scoring to end the home winning streak and once again make us question the viability of this Duke team as a contender. There is an unfortunate pattern emerging as this season matures. EVERYONE seems to be shooting over 50% against Duke. Because of this, there are a host of teams that are going to have a shot at beating the Blue Devils with a simple formula: play good enough perimeter defense so that Duke guards don’t score their way to an insurmountable lead, and provided that you have a few players who can score when given the opportunity, you will have a shot to win at the end.
I was stunned after the Ohio State loss. The Duke players were tired, having come off of a dramatic victory in Maui and lots of travel. Then they ran into a buzz saw at Value City Arena in Columbus. That home crowd was fired up and all of the OSU players were playing as well as they possibly could. The way that Krzyzewski coached, and the way that the players watched with bewilderment as Ohio State played the perfect game, led me to believe that it was an anomaly. Was Duke exposed? Not really. They were exposed to the fact that a talented team who plays a perfect game is going to beat anyone. I was sure that this would be a teaching moment that would humble this team and cause them to focus on defensive tenacity and offensive chemistry. Instead Duke came back from the break and limped into the Temple game, clearly viewing it as a final tune-up before they went into conference play.
How, you may ask, can I suggest that Duke “limped” when they won games by an average score of 95-63? Turnovers. Duke turned the ball over 18 times against a UNC Greensboro team that has only won 2 games. Then they turned it over 15 times against WMU and 12 against Penn. Maybe those are good defenses, you say? According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, UNCG is 295th, WMU is 161st and Penn is 178th. The 295th (out of 345) best defense in the country managed to turn Duke over 18 times. The Penn game looks the best with “only” 12, but they still gave the ball over to the 178th ranked defense in Division-I 12 times. In case you were wondering, Duke turned Penn over 13 times, so they squeaked out a victory in that turnover battle by a margin of one.
Growing up as a basketball fan in Indiana, it was all about the Hoosiers in the ’90s. Purdue had some strong teams, particularly with Glenn Robinson, but seeing as their only “championship” was awarded retroactively to John Wooden’s team in 1932 when the leather belt was still a standard part of the uniform, no one took them very seriously. There was a well-known joke among Indiana fans that went: “Why does Gene Keady only play 14 holes of golf?.. Because he can’t find the Final Four!” (Rimshot!) IU was the team who could claim the last undefeated season with Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner and Scott May. IU was the team who rode Isiah Thomas to victory over Dean Smith’s Tar Heels in 1981. IU had Steve Alford and “The Shot” by Keith Smart in 1987 to beat Syracuse. Bobby Knight could do no wrong. (I guess you could say that he is still given impunity. In fact, people here still resent Neil Reed for having the audacity to report that the man choked him.)This was everyone’s team.
After some fielding excellent squads in the early 1990’s led by Calbert Cheaney, Damon Bailey, Alan Henderson and Brian Evans, the relative failures of the teams that followed seemed to suggest that IU basketball was on the decline. Year after year they were losing to higher seeds in the NCAA tournament; and year after year Indiana’s best high school players were leaving the state so that they wouldn’t have to play for the demanding Knight. I always liked IU. I watched the games with my dad and wanted them to succeed, but I never fully connected with the team. I was gravitating towards the exciting group in blue and white that was always playing on ESPN.