Creating a Unique Identity: The Foundation of Duke Basketball
Randy Dunson [Note: Please direct comments, suggestions, etc. to @RandyDunson.]
Arguably, no team has been more indicative of this college basketball season’s turbulence than defending national champion Duke.
Looking back, there was the stretch for The Blue Devils’ that included the emotional highs of beating legit title contenders Virginia and North Carolina by a combined two points, followed by the letdown of losing 71-64 at Louisville. The NCAA Tournament ends a marathon of a season that also included a taxing spring to the finish, which was a grueling schedule to say the least. Duke’s ability to shake off fatigue in short stretches like those is paramount in the coming days.
In his illustrious career, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski coached five teams to national championships, each with their own identities. Should the 2015-’16 Blue Devils reach college basketball’s mountaintop, a distinct possibility despite the ups-and-downs of a 20-7 mark, they’ll have traversed their own, unique path.
“It’s a different Duke team than last year,” Krzyzewski noted during that stretch. “There is no Laettner, or Reddick, or Hill but it’s a damn good Duke team…It’s a team that fights like hell together. I’m proud of that, I love coaching this team and that’s why, when we lose I’m really disappointed.”
Based strictly on record and consistency, the immediate comparison to draw between this Duke and past title winners is the 2009-’10 squad. That team dropped a handful of January games in the same vein as this year’s bunch, but followed it with a torrid run in February, which spilled into March.
On its face, there are also undeniable similarities between this Duke team and last year in that both featured freshmen as prominent contributors, working in tandem with veteran leaders. However, while Brandon Ingram is developing into a budding superstar, and Derryk Thornton and Luke Kennard are invaluable assets, neither is as lauded nationally as last season’s freshman cornerstones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor.
Guard Grayson Allen has quickly broken out as a scoring threat in the vein of Reddick, and unlike Reddick, Allen has a national championship ring.
Allen’s maturation from spark plug as the No. 8 option a season ago, to the engine driving Duke’s offense this campaign keeps the Blue Devils in title contention. But the starkest contrast between this Duke team and last is that the 2015-’16 version lacks a 2014-’15 Grayson Allen.
There is no dependable option that deep on the bench; there is virtually no option on the bench, period, and that became readily evident in the losses in the finishing sprint during the regular season. Referring back to the pivotal Louisville loss, the Cardinals were the third in a weeklong run of games against Top 15-caliber competition, and the fatigue from running a seven-man rotation caught up with the Blue Devils.
Amile Jefferson’s injury early in the season shortened both Duke’s bench, as well as its floor presence. Marshall Plumlee is the only body Duke regularly has in the post, and it is much different from putting Okafor on the block. Plumlee is more reminiscent of Brian Zoubek, the unspectacular but undeniably important center of the 2010 Duke title team.
Duke needs Plumlee to provide the effort on the boards and manning the paint defensively, Zoubek brought for that championship run. A consistent defensive presence in the lane is of particularly importance now, because this team is uncharacteristically bad on that side of the ball.
There is no one like Winslow on this roster, who last season was arguably the best on-ball defender in college basketball. As a result, Duke checks in at No. 111 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.
That attitude Krzyzewski describes of “fight[ing] like hell together” must manifest on the defensive end. No Duke squad has ever had to prove itself on defense quite like this bunch, but if it does so, the 2015-’16 Blue Devils will stand with Coach K’s five other championship squads.