DURHAM – Reeling at the wrong time, Duke resorted to a desperate 2-3 zone to confuse N.C. State in its 88-69 win tonight.
That’s where the Blue Devils are right now.
For one night, 12th-ranked Duke seemed to steady itself. But don’t think for a minute that this changed the fact that this is a maddening team needing more than a defense from another day and age to survive the season.
Despite the win over its rival, this still has the feel of one of those one-and-done NCAA years.
With one game to play in the regular season, a home game against Carolina on Saturday, the Blue Devils still need to right themselves before Greensboro and hopefully secure a second seed for the NCAA, which would likely mean another week in Greensboro for the first two rounds.
Against the team that started Duke’s late-season slide, it took inspired games by Justin Robinson and Jordan Goldwire to get past State. That wasn’t how this season was supposed to go.
But something happened two weeks ago when the Wolfpack slammed Duke in Raleigh. Ranked sixth, surging and headed for a possible No. 1 seed in the tournaments, the Blue Devils had won seven straight. Going into tonight, they’d lost three of four including a double-overtime loss to Wake.
Which begged the question: What in the world is wrong with Duke?
There are many answers to the question, and many theories short of Duke just suddenly not being any good. That happens to some teams, but the Blue Devils have issues that have just surfaced.
Vernon Carey said the team just didn’t play hard enough in the last State game and that carried over.
“We just needed to win a game,” he said.
It’s not that simple, though. The obvious point, though, is why it took this long for teams to figure out how to beat Duke.
Stephen F. Austin exposed Duke’s defenders back in November, driving from the perimeter and getting to the rim with ease, a tactic Clemson and Louisville used to beat Duke in January and then everyone else in the weeks that have followed. That’s what the Blue Devils will see in the ACC Tournament next week and in the NCAA after that.
So in desperation, with State controlling the game and the emotions again, Krzyzewski put his team in a zone.
“We did it on the fly,” Carey said. “We didn’t practice it at all.”
Kryzewski has spent much of the season trying to mask the obvious flaws. Eventually, he realized that the depth of the roster has been working against him.
Trying to predict the starting lineups since January has been impossible. Some players have seen their minutes go down, some up and some both.
Other than Tre Jones, no player on the team has been used consistently, even Carey, though his playing time depends largely on fouls. The rest of the roster has been a deep well of role players, and many of the role players have hit a wall. Joey Baker, Jack White, Alex O’Connell and Javin DeLaurier have become lost on the roller coaster.
Thus what we thought was Duke’s greatest strength in preseason – shoot, until last week – has turned out to be a problem. Krzyzewski said people have overreacted to the late-season losses.
“We are a work in progress,” Krzyzewski has said many times this season. But he assumed that project would be complete at some point before the ACC Tournament.
Duke had used 12 starting lineups this season, some during Wendell Moore’s injury, most while searching for the right combinations, the right chemistry, the best way to stop opponents from driving the ball down their throats.
Krzyzewski went with his 13th tonight.
His recent search for a lineup has been mostly about finding a stretch four, sometimes using Matthew Hurt, sometimes Robinson and sometimes going without a stretch four who can pull defenders away from the rim.
Duke misses an inordinate amount of layups. Duke gets caught on ball screens from all five defensive positions. And some nights, Duke doesn’t resemble the team we thought we’d see.
Against its rival from Raleigh, we saw Krzyzewski go zone in the first half, a ploy that blew State’s mind. In the second, he took his jacket off and watched his team score on 17 straight possessions.
For a night anyway, Duke looked to be the team we thought it would be.
But the team we thought we would see this season doesn’t exist. What we saw tonight was what Duke has become.