I’ve heard a lot of code words during and after Duke played NC State yesterday. Some of these words: fight, hustle, heart, will, effort, desire, grit, etc…
I watched the game once live, and two times after, wearing out the pause, rewind, and slow-motion buttons on my remote. I wanted to see examples of these code words which, to me, translate to two things:
- Duke stopped caring
- Duke gave up (because they stopped caring)
I saw nothing leading me to believe anything remotely along these lines. In fact, I saw the opposite. Led by a raucous crowd, NC State came with more energy than I’ve seen any team play with against Duke all year. The only way to combat that kind of opponent is to bear down and dig deep, and quite honestly, to play harder than the guys in different colored jerseys. And Duke did for the majority of the game. Yes, they suffered some mental lapses, with switches and unnecessary doubles leaving men wide open down low, but this wasn’t the story of the game. The true tale of this contest was NC State players, led by Trevor Lacey, hitting shots with defenders in their faces like the NBA Jam “He’s on Fire!” button got stuck on repeat. Duke is a young team, and when playing exactly the type of defense you’re taught, only to have players consistently hit jumpers in your face, it can get frustrating. Combine this with Duke’s offense generating wide open three pointer after wide open three pointer, resulting in a house of bricks, and the result is unending frustration.
Basketball is a game of percentages. You can run every play perfectly, but if the shot doesn’t go in, the possession is a failure. On defense, you can switch, take away the passing lanes, fight through screens, and guard up on the man with the ball as well as possible, but if he hits the shot anyway, then the possession is a failure.
Duke is a young team, and hadn’t seen an opponent gain momentum against them to the point of a snowball effect, which happens when overwhelmed. When mentally flustered, play will obviously be affected. And from around 11:30 left in the 2nd half to 6:10 left in the 2nd half, Duke lost their way, with players trying to individually take over the game (leading to turnovers and transition points for State) and not playing within Duke’s system. But effort? Caring? Those are damning words, and a dangerous road to travel when analyzing college athletes. I realize that the body language sagged after some plays, but again, I’m not sure how that can be equated to these code words. Amile Jefferson said that Duke lacked heart after the game, but when is the last time Duke lost and a player didn’t say that, or some form of not playing the “Duke way?” It is an easy cop out and a way of taking the attention off of what really happened. When Duke started pressing after Jahlil Okafor’s free throws, did they all of a sudden start caring again? Did they start trying again? The way that they played when trying to come back at the end of the game was totally desperation-based, which is impossible to replicate, but the fact of the matter is that I want somebody who is complaining about Duke’s heart, will, caring, and effort to point out specific plays where you see this come to fruition.
In all honesty, Duke has struggled with turnovers, free throws, and rebounding this season. Duke either equaled or was better than NC State in these exact categories. In fact, I saw great signs of improvement. Okafor tried new moves and posted up on the left block more often. Justise Winslow attacked the rim like I’ve been begging him to do the entire season. Amile fought for rebounds, showing sings of life after a few games wearing an invisibility cloak. Overall, there is reason for optimism. I never speak in rah rah fanhood cliches, and most definitely will not start now. These are my honest thoughts.
As Duke fans, acting entitled is a bad look, resembling some Yankees and Patriots fans who have experienced consistent success for so long that they feel it is deserved and anything less is unacceptable. This isn’t a knock on those fanbases. For many teenage fans of those teems, they know no other way to be. I am a Redskins, Wizards, and Orioles fan. The Wizards and Orioles have turned their franchises around after years of embarrassment, and this makes me appreciate the success more, as well as making me feel lucky to be able to witness Duke’s year-to-year achievements with Coach K. If able to strip away the sense of entitlement, Duke fans will find this a damn fun team to watch. If able to stop comparing this year’s squad to previous legendary K-coached teams, and instead evaluate Duke on a game-to-game basis, nervous breakdowns are less likely to happen. The social media love affair (sarcasm) between many Duke and Kentucky fans might also be taking away from the fun. I’ll admit, though, that some may argue the total opposite end of the spectrum and say it adds to the fun. Much of the back and forth seems, to me, much worse than typical fun trash talk, though, reaching levels I would call venomous.
The real questions for Duke right now are:
- Why did K wait so long to experiment with lineups?
- Why doesn’t Duke press more?
- What player will take the reins of this team as the guy who will smack some sense into his teammates when necessary?
- Outside of Winslow, who can create transition opportunities to take pressure of the half court offense?
- What is Duke’s identity? At the start of the year, I said it should be, besides priority #1 always being Jah, to attack, attack, attack! By attacking, it allows players to gain confidence and frees up the outside shot. When Duke struggles so far this year on offense, they become chuckers. Hmm…Mercer much?
- What is the reason to ever have Justise and Sheed out of the game at the same time? They are the two players who create off the dribble on offense and can cause turnovers the defense the best. Duke needs at least one in at all times.
- I understand why Rasheed comes off the bench as the 6th man instead of Matt Jones. But why Matt Jones over Sheed in crunch time?
- Why can’t the coaches nail it into Plumlee’s head head that he’s not allowed to leave the paint? Why he constantly roams so far out on defense is beyond me. If he can’t be trusted to play spot minutes, Okafor is gonna be worn out very soon.
- TYUS JONES (My scouting report, Wake Forest analysis, and podcast will tell you all you need to know about my thoughts on Tyus)
It will be fun for me to watch and see which of these questions can be answered. I look forward to Duke coming with the same type of effort, desire and heart that I saw yesterday. Hopefully the upcoming results will be different, but I’m taking nothing for granted.