At this point in the year, the Duke basketball team has made one thing crystal clear, which is the ability to fight back from adversity. To put it bluntly, last year’s squad was mentally weak, and would implode under duress. So when things snowballed against NC State and Miami this season, it seemed to be the same old, same old. X’s and O’s changes made by the coaching staff helped in victories against Louisville and Pittsburgh, but after losing to Notre Dame, Rasheed Sulaimon became the first player in Coach K’s 35 years at Duke to be dismissed.
Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson are the only players who have contributed major minutes to Duke outside of this season. What this means is that Coach K is counting on four recent high school players who were generally leaps and bounds better than their opponents, as well as Matt Jones and Marshall Plumlee. In the early non-conference part of their schedule, Duke seemed like a well-oiled machine, never once falling behind. Against Wake Forest, though, some of Duke’s weaknesses were exposed, leading to the two losses in which the team collapsed in the second half of both games.
So the first two times that Duke fell behind in games, things got bad. Like…really, really bad. But looking at the team from a realistic perspective, what else could be expected? Again, this team is full of young players who had not been involved in any adversity to this magnitude. AAU games and national teams are a different beast. The results had nothing to do with anything physical. They were never being worn down by other teams or lacking effort It was purely a matter of getting mentally overwhelmed. The question moving forward became how would this team react when losing late in the second half? Would they wilt like their first two losses or fight back?
The last three games have provided an answer that should make Duke fans very happy. Against St. John’s, they were down 10 with 8:30 left and came back. Against Notre Dame, Duke withstood a 12-0 run by the Irish lasting from 11:00-5:30 and still had chances to win. Missed free throws and a miracle Jerian Grant shot happen. The resilience Duke showed was much more important. And then came Virginia (the first game after losing Sulaimon), who play incredibly efficient basketball and make coming from behind against their pack line defense close to impossible. With UVA up 11 points and under 10 minutes to go, the result seemed a foregone conclusion. But again, this Duke team showed it’s heart and will, incredibly scoring on 14 of their last 15 possessions as well as throttling their opponent with a zone that seemed an odd choice at the time against such a well-oiled offense. From 4:41-1:20, Quinn Cook outscored Virginia 9-5 himself, and Duke didn’t allow a single point under the three minute mark. It closely resembled the 2012 come from behind victory at North Carolina, leaving fans of the opposing team in a state of disbelief when the final buzzer sounded.
What’s most impressive is that all three hard-fought battles against St. John’s, Notre Dame, and Virginia came on the road. Now, the key is figuring out how Duke can play with the kind of urgency and desperation that has allowed them to stick with, and at times overwhelm much more experienced teams. Does Duke still have weaknesses? Of course. Could the Virginia victory be looked at as a miracle and a fluke? Probably. But when piecing it together with St. John’s and Notre Dame, the heart, fight, and effort of this Duke team can no longer be questioned. They have been asked to grow as a team in just a few months like other programs have the ability to do in a couple of seasons. It’s an incredibly unfair task to ask of these young men. There will continue to be ups and downs, but this team seems to welcome all challenges. They are gelling when it matters most, which is a scary thought for the rest of the country.