The Duke basketball team has lost three games in a row and times are tough in Durham right now.
In today’s “hot take” world, the hot take on Duke is that this team is done. Rivals are gleefully piling on, which is to be expected. Coach K has had Duke at such a high level for such a long time, rivals don’t get this opportunity often.
However, I’m not ready to give up on this year’s team yet. To do so would exhibit seriously short-term thinking.
A bit of background on my experience with “hot takes.”
My initiation into the world of Duke basketball precedes Coach K. I was introduced to Blue Devil basketball in my early teens by the 1978 team. This is the team that featured Jim Spanarkel, Mike Gminski, Gene Banks, & Kenny Dennard, among others. It was coached by the late, great Bill Foster. That team went to the NCAA championship game, where it fell to Kentucky.
That didn’t matter to me. I was hooked.
And a couple of years later, when Coach Foster moved on, I was confident Duke would get a big name coach. I mean, who wouldn’t want to coach the Blue Devils, right?
Then, they hired a guy I’d never heard of and whose name I couldn’t spell. I was livid. My know-it-all teenaged hot take was that the Blue Devils had messed this up badly. Thankfully, 35 plus years of unrivaled success later, my hot take was proven wrong. I think this taught me to keep things in perspective. And it’s through this lens that I’d like to view Duke’s current struggles.
First, for Duke fans to expect another season like last year is unrealistic. Freshmen with the mental and game maturity of last year’s class don’t come around often. Look no further than Kentucky, who after winning the NCAA championship with a freshman laden team in 2012, struggled mightily the following year after losing those freshmen to the NBA, and missed the NCAA tourney. I am not saying this year’s team will not make the NCAAs but there are no guarantees, even for spoiled Duke fans.
Second, Duke lost its top five scorers from last year’s team. To pretend this is a minor thing would be a mistake. Every player on this team has faced a significant change from last season. The freshmen struggled (and some still are struggling) with the adjustment to the college game. Brandon Ingram and Luke Kennard have handled the transition the best but they still have problems (shot selection & fouls, for example). Chase Jeter hasn’t been the force we’d all hoped he would be this year, as he learns how to play the college game without committing fouls. And Derryck Thornton came to school early and has shown flashes, but obviously needs time to develop.
The change isn’t limited to the freshmen, though. People seem to forget that Grayson Allen barely played last year. He has gone from a guy who struggled to get minutes to having to be THE guy – and I think he’s handled that amazingly well. Amile Jefferson, when he was healthy, had to become a better offensive threat and became the defensive glue on this year’s team, after being the “forgotten” starter last year. Matt Jones is playing huge minutes and being asked to handle the ball at times, a significant change for a player who was a defensive specialist his first two years in Durham. And what can you say about Marshall Plumlee? He had become a solid contributor before Amile’s injury but what he has done since the injury has been spectacular. He’s reached levels I didn’t think we would see from him. He and Amile are all that you could ever want from that most rare of creatures these days – senior leaders.
Finally, none of this is to deny the issues Duke is facing right now. Interior depth is absent. Despite his Herculean efforts, Marshall can’t go it alone inside. Either a player needs to step up to help him, or the collective team will have to step up. Duke has struggled with rebounding and defense in Amile’s absence but what has hurt most during the current losing streak is, in my opinion, end of game decisions.
Against Clemson, Derryck Thornton made a play and got the ball to an open teammate for a three. The play was solid, the decision making not as much…If the move had been made on the other side of the floor, Grayson Allen or Luke Kennard could’ve taken the last shot. I chalk that up to freshman learning – right move in the wrong spot.
Against Notre Dame, the freshman (Brandon Ingram) drove the ball and dished to an upperclassman (Matt Jones) who unfortunately took a quick three. There was time for a head fake and drive, which could’ve gotten the ball to a hot Kennard or Grayson Allen. Again, being a distributor at the end of games is a new role to Jones, even though he’s a junior.
And against Syracuse, the ball made it to Grayson Allen, who drove and missed a tough shot, one he has made several times this season. To me, though all resulted in losses, I see a progression, a team learning from arguably the best one-two coaching combination in the country. They are trying to figure this out on the fly and they are getting there.
For sure, now is a difficult time for the Blue Devils. They are dealing with an injury while trying to find their way through a very tough ACC. But I think it’s safe to say they won’t stop trying and will not give up. I don’t think a team that has a player with Grayson Allen’s fire can ever give up. It would be a shame if Duke fans obsessed with hot takes gave up on this squad.
Be patient, Blue Devil fans.
We should know that patience doesn’t guarantee Duke will get this figured out this year. It’s certainly not guaranteed this team will make the NCAAs.
However, it is said that good things come to those who wait. The coach whose name I couldn’t spell and who I didn’t want has delivered five national championships to the Blue Devils. Now, I wouldn’t trade him for anyone. In the long run, this current struggle is just another rough patch in the journey that is Duke basketball.
I still believe in this team, and given the volatility of the college game this year, I wouldn’t count out Duke just yet.
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