Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a five-part college basketball preview. Part 1 on North Carolina ran yesterday. Check back this week for Kentucky, Ohio State, and Syracuse.
I come not, my friends, to insult your intelligence. Before we get going, let me be clear — at the risk of blowing up the weeklong series, I don’t believe Duke will win a national title.
(Did everyone just gasp? I hope people gasped.)
If you’re in the business of ranking college basketball teams, Duke is a comfortable top-10 choice. Maybe top five, if you’re feeling generous or controversial. But no. 1? It pains me to say it, but North Carolina is the team. Oh, UNC. What a collection of talent! What beauty! What grace! I can only imagine the disappointment in Chapel Hill if the Tar Heels, whom I’ve taken to calling “The Unsinkable Dream Team,” don’t win a championship. That would be one of the all-time missed opportunities. You hate to even think about it.
But today, forget about the polls. Forget about wins and losses, and potential, and everything tangible. Today, I would like to focus on heart. More specifically, why Duke deserves the top spot in your heart. I count three reasons.
1. Duke Is Misunderstood
Hey, we get it. You hate Duke. Duke is full of rich kids from New York or New Jersey, except for me, a poor kid from New York or New Jersey. Duke is arrogant, and snobby, and maybe evil. That’s the perception, and I’m not here to tell you you’re wrong. But truth is a nuanced creature. Consider this:
Perhaps Duke is merely uptight. Sure, the caricature of the Duke student is sometimes accurate. I was there, in the trenches. I saw some things that can’t be unseen. I could tell you some stories that would have you burning the blue flag all night. But the flip side of that image is a deep, festering insecurity. Duke is assailed from all sides. The only way to respond to the accusations, to the hatred, is to sink deeper into that Duke shell, with all its flaws and foibles.
I realize I’m getting a little esoteric here, but hear me out. Do you realize the school has a wall that encloses the entire campus? And it’s not a metaphorical wall. It’s a wall built of gothic Duke stone that the founders used in an attempt to look like Princeton. Then again, it is a metaphorical wall. Duke is Hunker-Down University, a little sanctuary for people who know they’re not liked. And once in a while, those people need to let off some steam. But because there’s so much steam — veritable fountains of gaseous water, fogging up windows for all the wrong reasons — and because the magnifying glass is always focused on West Campus, it leads to some ugly incidents. PowerPoint sex lists. Underage kids getting drunk in portable toilets. Sexist e-mails from fraternities.
Duke doesn’t help its own image. But if these things happened anywhere else, would they be associated with the university? Or just with the offender, or college kids in general? Is it Duke’s fault that it’s populated by teenagers who make mistakes? Is it the basketball team’s fault? I mean, truly, did Coach K write that sex list? Of course not. I like to think that if he did, it would have featured a lot more defense. Maybe some passing.
Like it or not, this has led to a wider grouping problem, a sort of stereotyping that’s not fair to Duke fans or Duke players. The worst parts of any institution shouldn’t represent the majority. For example, I don’t write sexist e-mails. I’m terrified to use portable toilets, much less become intoxicated in them. I keep all my PowerPoint sex lists private. That’s partly because they’re embarrassingly short, but also because I am not a Duke stereotype. Neither are 90 percent of Duke fans. I know them. They’re good people. They wear casual clothes and hold Wall Street in suspicion. They drink beers and treat strangers with kindness. They trip on ottomans and swear at the television. They have nothing to prove and nothing to defend.
2. Duke Was Incredibly Unlucky Last Year
Let’s talk about basketball. Between the national title in 2001 and the national title in 2010, Duke’s tournament losses followed a formula: a hardworking team plays incredibly efficient basketball, earns a high ranking based on a terrific regular-season record, and falls to a more athletic team peaking in March. A celebrated Duke guard shoots 1-18 in the key game because some really fast, long defender makes his life miserable. A player cries. Coach K talks about how much he loves his kids. Cretins from Maryland erupt in joy.
But that wasn’t the deal last year, I swear. When Duke beat North Carolina in the ACC title game, the Blue Devils were the best team in America. I remain convinced of that fact. I was so sure of it that I commemorated the event with this illustration:
From left to right, that’s Ryan Kelly (a.k.a. “The White Raven”), Kyle Singler (a.k.a. “Ichabod Drain”), Nolan Smith (a.k.a. “The Angel of the Universe”), and Seth Curry (a.k.a. “The Koala Apostle”). From there, it was on to March Madness. Duke survived a scare from Michigan before being blown off the court, in brutal fashion, by Arizona. And that was the unlucky part, because the loss was one of the flukiest games in Duke basketball history. I’m not asking for sympathy, but it was a hard way to go for two reasons:
a. The Wildcats played the game of their young, annoying lives
Offensive efficiency is a tempo-free metric used to measure how many points a team would score if given 100 possessions. That night, in the Sweet 16, Arizona’s offensive efficiency was 134.7. For context, Statsheet.com keeps single-game offensive-efficiency numbers dating back to 1997. How many times did Duke face an offense so efficient in those 14 years?
Never. Never ever ever. No offense, in any one game, had played that well against Duke. And believe you me, Duke played some good teams in that stretch. Championship teams. Legendary teams. But what about Arizona? It was facing the fourth-best defense in the country, by adjusted efficiency. Surely, if it put up such gaudy numbers against Duke, it must have annihilated lesser teams. Right?
Wrong. The Wildcats achieved that level of efficiency just once in 2010-11, in a 90-42 romp over Idaho St. in the first game of the season. Two days after beating Duke, they regressed to a more average 108.6 efficiency in an Elite Eight loss to UConn. Too late for us, though. There’s no justice in March.
b. The return of Kyrie Irving
When Irving, the phenom freshman point guard, went down with an injury against Butler in December, nobody knew whether he’d return. In his absence, Duke forged a new chemistry, led by senior Nolan Smith. There were some bumps and bruises along the way, but it ended in triumph at the ACC championship game. The team found the answer, the way to become elite without its best player.
Then Kyrie came back, and Coach K put him back at point. He excelled, showing the NBA scouts that he was a viable first pick, that the injury hadn’t slowed him down. That was the entire point when he scored 28 against Arizona while the rest of the team stood around gaping. Kyrie Irving was fine. Duke was not.
In the last game of his career, Smith scored eight points on 3-14 shooting. You’ll find a lot of disagreement among Duke fans, but I don’t think that would have happened if Kyrie hadn’t spoiled a hard-won chemistry. As one of the great players in school history, I think Nolan deserved more than to have his job stripped for a freshman’s NBA tryout. Something special was ruined that night, and it’s never coming back.
In case you couldn’t tell, these are some sour grapes. Sour, sour grapes. And I’ve been eating them for months.
3. This Year’s Team Will Be “Interesting”
Austin Rivers. Austin Austin Austin Rivers Rivers Rivers. That’s the key to the season.
Here’s the deal with Austin Rivers — he’s getting a huge break right now because of his pedigree. The freshman shooting guard, the top recruit at his position, is seriously talented. His quickness, shot, and handle are incredible. He could be one of the best players in the country, freshman or otherwise. There will be spurts when he scores 10 points before you can blink. He might be the most dynamic player at Duke since Jason Williams. As you see, he’s already ruined NC State’s Lorenzo Brown for life:
But he’s also teetering on the verge of being (to borrow a phrase from legendary coach Adolph Rupp) “a little on the douchey side.” For whatever reason, Rivers plays like he’s got a giant chip on his shoulder. He’s mastered the body language of snide arrogance, an on-court elitism that is very, very unlikable. No call against him passes without a dismissive shake of the head, and he never fails to punctuate a display of excellence with a smug grimace and an exaggerated swagger. Now and again, he’ll even miss the ensuing play while he acts out his little drama, and that sin is unforgivable in Coach K’s world.
Rivers, if you believe his persona, is an unapologetic individualist. This child of privilege plays the role of thug, the role of tough-guy prodigy, and let me tell you something: The anti-Duke crowd is going to despise him. You thought Redick was bad? Austin Rivers is everything that people accused J.J. Redick of being. He’s the uber-Redick, the Duke stereotype blown into bogeyman proportions. This is the chosen one, slouching toward Durham, that the enemies have been awaiting. It’s not a good sign when an early nickname, hatched by a Duke fan, is “Austintatious.”
Now, that being said, we still don’t know if the act is real. Maybe deep down there’s a sensitive soul waiting to be brought out. And I don’t say that to present the alternative in a superficial way. The word at Duke is that he’s humbled himself in practice thus far, and is playing the team game. That would be wonderful.
But the mannerisms were back for the Blue-White scrimmage last Friday. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins staged an intense comeback that seemed to hint at a deep desire to beat Team Rivers. The dark possibilities present themselves: Did it sit well with the vets that Rivers got the largest ovation during introductions? Is there some underlying tension related to Rivers’ style? It’s impossible to answer these questions, but the string will play out. Yes, it will.
Meanwhile, Rivers is not the only player on the team. Seth Curry is poised for a breakout year. The unflappable guard will be getting a fair amount of time at the point until a suitable alternative is found and he can transition back to shooting guard. Unfortunately, that day may never come. The best hope at the moment is Quinn Cook, the freshman who showed flashes of brilliance last Friday. On the downside, his shoddy perimeter defense is a huge liability.
As usual, Duke is rich in shooting guards. During the Blue-White scrimmage, I texted my stepfather that the team was well prepared in case the NCAA decided to raise the baskets to 15 feet. “Or lower them to six,” he wrote back. Along with Curry and Rivers, likely starters, Duke has Dawkins and two “forwards” in Ryan Kelly and Michael Gbinije who appear more comfortable playing from the perimeter.
Kelly has looked fantastic in the preseason, and not just because of a really well-conceived beard. The jump shot that brought him to the brink of an NCAA record when he made 18 straight shots last season is better than ever, and he’s showing more ability to play down low. His strength is still a question mark, and I’m skeptical about his ability to bang inside with the musclemen of the ACC. But he’ll be an excellent offensive threat, the kind of player who can bring the little guys to the paint and draw the big men away from the basket.
Dawkins is the second-most important player after Rivers. You know what you’re getting from Curry (steady at worst, spectacular at best, reliable under pressure), but with Dawkins it’s all more uncertain. He plays with a kind of anger that feels more legitimate than the Rivers variety, but his passion will ebb and flow during the game. In the past, he’s tended to disappear for long stretches, or to get discouraged at his place in the game. He’s a player Duke needs to be more than a spot-up 3-point shooter, but at times last season he was awfully one-dimensional. Worse, he didn’t work very hard to get himself open off the ball. Worst, his perimeter defense killed Duke at times, especially in that Arizona game when Curry went down with an injury.
Then you have the time-traveling brothers from the 1950s — the Magnificent Plumlees. All these Plumlee years have led Duke fans to expect certain things. First, they play terrible help-side defense, arriving just in time to foul a guy as he’s dunking. Second, they commit stupid fouls (these come in two varieties: the unnecessary arm slap inside, and the clumsy-aggressive hedge on the perimeter). Third, they lack any post move outside of what John Wooden calls “the dunk shot.” Fourth, they get so excited when they manage to dunk that an overenthusiastic foul on the ensuing defensive possession is a guarantee. Fifth, they put themselves in poor rebounding position. Sixth, they lack the inside-to-outside passing ability that sets up Duke’s shooters and was such a crucial part of Brian Zoubek’s game in the 2010 title run. You’re always more likely to see an ungainly hook shot or a fadeaway brick than a crisp dish to a shooter in the corner.
So far, though, Miles Plumlee (“Plumdog Millionaire”) is breaking the mold. The eldest of the corn-fed Indiana big men has looked nothing short of incredible. He’s doing everything well, and he’s making me question everything I knew about the Plumlees. You could argue that he was the least likely of the three to emerge! Everybody keeps expecting big things from Mason Plumlee, the most athletic and probably the strongest of the three, but he appears to be his usual self. Somehow, Miles is the one thriving against the odds.
The starting lineup to begin the season will probably look like this: Curry-Rivers-Kelly-Plumlee-Plumlee. If Duke wants to go small, substitute Dawkins for one of the Plumlees. Cook will be groomed for the starting point guard role, and Gbinije will see time as a slashing forward. In the spot-minutes department, Josh Hairston will relieve the Plumlees, Tyler Thornton can play obnoxious perimeter defense for roughly 10 minutes per game, and freshman Alex Murphy could see some time at forward.
As usual, the year will begin with fireworks. If there’s one thing you can count on with a Mike Krzyzewski-coached team, it’s pressure defense. The China/Dubai trip will pay huge dividends in that regard, as the freshmen will have a deeper-than-normal understanding of the system. The Maui Invitational, when Duke will meet Tennessee and two other teams from a group that includes Memphis, Michigan, Kansas, Georgetown, and UCLA, will give them a chance to showcase that discipline. Duke should win that title without much of a sweat. The fast start is a Coach K hallmark, after all, and the perceived postseason fade is more a product of other teams catching up than Duke slowing down. November and December are good months.
Speaking of the man in charge, his continued excellence has presented him with an opportunity to break Bobby Knight’s all-time wins record in Madison Square Garden against Michigan State on November 15. Say what you will about Coach K — and even Duke fans have their issues (besides the dearth of athletic post recruits, my pet peeve is the stall offense he employs at the end of games, which I feel cost us a national title in 2004 and nearly led to the Michigan upset last year) — but 903 wins will speak for themselves. When the moment comes, cynicism will step aside to ceremony. All hail Coach K.
But the real test for his team comes in ACC play. Duke hasn’t lost in Cameron Indoor Stadium in two years, but UNC will pose a huge threat to that streak, if it’s still active, in early March. And the composure of the team will be tested most acutely in the difficult conference road games that invariably produce a frustrating loss or two.
If I had to guess Duke’s fate, I’d say 11-5 in the ACC, good for second place, an ACC tournament title (after Carolina tanks in the first round), and a Sweet 16 exit. As usual, though, the ceiling is much higher. In the chancy dice roll that is the NCAA tournament, Duke is certainly among the teams that might be left standing. If it can happen in 2010, it can happen now.
But a team is a process. So is an image. When you hate Duke this year, hate them with an open heart, and remember that we’re all afflicted in our own way. Go Devils.
Shane Ryan is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at @TobaccoRdBlues.
Previously from Shane Ryan:
The Wrestler in Real Life
Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, and Unforeseen Drama at Duke’s Midnight Madness
College Football Recap: Clemson Fights Back
College Football Preview: Can Michigan Keep Winning?
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