The 2016-17 Duke basketball season came to an end Sunday night with a disappointing 88-81 loss to South Carolina in Greenville, SC, in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament.
It was the end of the road for a Blue Devil team that began the year as the No. 1 ranked team in the country but struggled to find its footing and reach its potential due to a variety of issues.
We had hoped the magnificent four day run through the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn might be the spark to carry this team to a title, but it was indicative of the streaky play that Duke displayed all year – sometimes playing like the most talented squad in the country, while other times looking like a team capable of losing to anyone in the country.
Why was this season such a mystery for the Blue Devils?
Here are a few factors in what went wrong.
Lack of a Point Guard
Duke’s lack of a true point guard on the roster was viewed as a potential weakness before the season, and it’s a problem that reared its head multiple times throughout the year, including in Sunday night’s loss to South Carolina. Frank Jackson did an admirable job trying to handle the role, but he endured the type of struggles you can expect from a talented freshman. There were too many times when Duke needed a player who could serve primarily as a distributor and playmaker for others and it simply wasn’t an option. Hopefully this also reminds us to appreciate what a special player Duke had in Tyus Jones.
This season began on the wrong foot, both metaphorically and literally. We never got to see a healthy Harry Giles, and nearly everyone else on the roster dealt with injuries at some point during the season. Duke didn’t have the opportunity to build chemistry and develop a consistent rhythm because of guys constantly missing time due to injuries. Between Giles, Tatum, Jackson, Bolden, Jefferson, and Allen, it felt like Duke’s legs and feet were cursed. Health is the type of thing you can never predict when preparing for a season, and the type of luck you typically have to have when winning a championship.
Duke’s lack of depth bit the Blue Devils in a big way in the loss to South Carolina. It was one of the few times this season when injuries weren’t the cause of the depth problem, but it was foul trouble that created challenges for the team. I’ll put the failure to develop a deeper bench on Mike Krzyzewski and his staff. Coach K is all about shortening his rotation and relying heavily on his best players, but there’s also risk that comes with not relying more on bench players who can fill roles in key situations. Duke had a bench stocked with McDonald’s All-Americans and talented players all season. It’s unfortunate we didn’t see them get a chance to contribute. And now, we enter the offseason wondering how many of them will stick around or transfer to find opportunities for more playing time.
The inability to stop dribble penetration and keep athletic guards out of the lane is a recurring problem in Duke’s NCAA Tournament losses. South Carolina took advantage of this weakness and head coach Frank Martin deserves credit for taking advantage of individual mismatches to create easy scoring opportunities. Coach K has always taken pride in using a defense that relies heavily on extending the perimeter and aggressively playing the passing lanes, but if he doesn’t have guards with elite athleticism it lends itself to providing easy driving lanes and breakdowns in help-side defense. Honestly, aside from that incredible run in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, Duke’s defense has been a mess for the past few years.
This Team Never Became a Cohesive Unit
Whether it was because of the injuries, poor coaching, or a roster full of talented players that didn’t fit with each other, Duke could never put it all together as a consistent unit this season. There were too many offensive situations that resulted in guys trying to make one-on-one plays and too many defensive situations where the team clearly wasn’t on the same page. Duke was able to mask some of these problems because it was a group of extremely talented individuals, but this group often felt like it was less than the sum of its parts.
Despite the frustrations of an early loss in the NCAA Tournament, remember that this group gets to hang a 2017 ACC Tournament Champions banner.
Take a break. Avoid the urge to argue with people online. Take a deep breath. And start looking forward to next season.