Is the Sky Falling?

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The Big Lead doesn’t want to go overboard on Duke’s demise, which makes us happy. As a loyal fan, I’m not ready to throw in the towel quite yet either. Obviously Duke has been down (in regard to the Blue Devil’s standards), falling clearly behind North Carolina as the big daddy in the ACC.
The Big Lead doesn’t want to go overboard on Duke’s demise, which makes us happy. As a loyal fan, I’m not ready to throw in the towel quite yet either. Obviously Duke has been down (in regard to the Blue Devil’s standards), falling clearly behind North Carolina as the big daddy in the ACC. /

We can certainly dive into the details of why this year’s Duke class is only the second in Coach K’s tenure to not crack the final four, but first, we have to state the obvious, college basketball doesn’t have great teams anymore. With so many great players either skipping to the pros (most recently, as a one-and-done), parity rules the day.

Duke has suffered, as has lots of other schools, from this. If kids stayed three to four years like they did 15-20 years ago, the whole college basketball landscape would be different. Put it this way, Shaun Livingston would have been a senior point guard for Duke this season.

Now anyone can beat anyone, just ask Kentucky, Connecticut and yes, even Duke. Without great players, there are no great teams. If players didn’t leave early, who would be the front runners right now? Florida, Ohio State again. If stars didn’t go straight to the pros, would a player like J.J. Redick really be the player of the year? The reason why a player like Michael Jordan doesn’t win POV these days, is because there are no more Michael Jordan’s playing to their junior year. If player’s didn’t bolt early, Tyler Hansbrough is at best, a second-team All-American.

This parity effects everyone. Look at what has happened to all the champions since Duke last won it in 2001.

  • 2002 – Maryland: One sweet 16, two second rounds and three NITs.
  • 2003 – Syracuse: One sweet 16, lost in first round, followed by three straight missed tournaments.
  • 2004 – Connecticut: They’ve cracked the sweet 16 only once since ’04. They’ve lost in the second round, lost to George Mason in the Elite Eight, missed the tournament, then this year, lost in the first round.
  • 2005 – North Carolina: Lost in the second round and then the elite eight to George Mason.
  • 2006/2007 – After back-to-back titles, Florida missed the tournament.

Outside of Florida’s back-to-back title run, Duke is the only champion to make it back to the final four (three years later). Although, Carolina will probably do it this year, would you consider the Tar Heels in decline if they fail to make it to the final four again, despite having the best lineup in college? I wouldn’t, not these days.

As a Duke fan, sure I’m frustrated by the lack of wins in the tournament, but shouldn’t I feel worse if I was an Syracuse fan, Maryland fan or a Connecticut fan? I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to bet a lot of teams out there would be willing to suffer through this kind of disappointment. I know I’m going to disappoint 98% of the nation, but Duke is not done. And no, Duke is not like a ‘mid-major’ just because they have white players.

As for the why Duke has struggled in the tournament? Obviously this is up for some debate, and looking at The Big Lead’s comments section, it’s a debate everyone likes to have. So let’s join in, shall we?

The simple fact for Duke’s lack of ‘final four’ teams recently is due to recruiting, recruiting and you guessed it, recruiting. You might think I’m crazy when I say this because Duke’s roster is full of McDonald’s All-Americans, but most of these players are offered scholarships prior to being selected to McDonald’s All-Americans, so it is a fair question to ask; do these players get named McDonald’s All-Americans because they’re headed to Duke?

The last great Duke recruiting class was in 2000, Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy. You could consider both J.J. Redick and Sheldon Williams since both were great college players, but both have not transitioned well to the pros.

Let’s take a look at the classes:

2002 – Only Sheldon Williams was a 5-star recruit. Redick was a four, Dockery and Shavlik Randolph were fours and Melchionni was a three. Obviously with Williams and Redick, you have two solid, college players, but the rest were marginal at best. They did reach the final four their sophomore year, blowing a ten-point lead with five to play against Connecticut.

2003 – Luol Deng was a five-star stud, but he was a one and done. Is there any doubt Duke wouldn’t have done better if he stuck around?

2004 – Duke landed two five-star studs, DeMarcus Nelson and Shaun Livingston, but Shaun broke all our hearts when the 6-6 point guard went straight to the NBA. It was a huge loss, when you consider 2005-06’s starting roster could have been Redick, Williams, Deng, Livingston and Nelson. DeMarcus wasn’t bad, he just could never get healthy until his senior year.

2005 – This class was truly disappointing and is the main reason why Duke has struggled to advance in the tournament the last two years. Paulus and McRoberts were both fives, Pocius and Boateng were fours and Boykin was a three. Only Paulus was around to help out this year’s squad (Pocius has been injured).

2006 – Duke landed Henderson and Zoubek (both five-star guys) and two four star guys, Scheyer and Thomas. I still can’t imagine Brian Zoubek ever being a five-star guy. It baffles me to this day. The only true possible All-American is Henderson. Scheyer should continue to improve, but how much better will Thomas and Zoubek really get?

Obviously the jury is still out on the 2006 class, as well as the 2007 class of Singler, Smith and King, but where are the Brand’s, Battier’s, Boozers? No studs, just a bunch of average-to-good wing men.
Obviously the jury is still out on the 2006 class, as well as the 2007 class of Singler, Smith and King, but where are the Brand’s, Battier’s, Boozers? No studs, just a bunch of average-to-good wing men. /

One common theme people tend to hit on is that Coach K only goes after 4-year players now. Since I’ve never actually heard him say that, I don’t know if that’s true. Duke went hard after Patrick Patterson last year and they didn’t land him. At best, he’s two and done. Whether it is by choice, or rather the coaching staff simply can’t land them, Duke hasn’t produced a ‘stud’ in a long while (Remember, Redick wasn’t considered a stud when he came out).

Speaking of Patterson, you have to admit (putting his injury aside), if he had ended up at Duke, they’d be one of the best teams in the nation right now. Unlike other sports, one player (especially a big man) can really make that much of a difference.

Unfortunately, the 2008 class won’t be producing any big men either. Elliot Williams is just a guard, who will probably be a better scoring version of DeMarcus Nelson, and Olek Czyz, a small power forward (6-7), will provide some energy off the bench…but that’s all folks. The ’08 Blue Devils will look a lot like the ’07 Blue Devils.

Duke does have a scholarship offer to 7-2 center, John Reik, who is attending prep school for a year. Word on the street is the big man from Sudan is probably going to go pro (2nd round). If Duke could land him, he’s a game changer, but it is unlikely he’ll ever step foot on any campus.

So far in 2009, while Carolina has already landed four top-100 players, Duke has produced only one player, 6-11 Mason Plumlee. He’s a tall kid, but he likes to play the wing, no bumping and grinding in the middle. The coaching staff is trying hard to land some more size, so time will tell if that happens.

One more point on the recruiting front. Would it kill the staff to maybe find a sleeper somewhere? Some underrated kid that no one is really looking at, who, with a little coaching and development can become a star…cough, cough, Stephen Curry? I don’t feel too bad Duke missed this kid, just about everyone in the ACC did (except Virginia Tech), but man, talk about a miss opportunity.

As for next year, my expectations will be high. No longer can this team blame its problems on youth. The lineup will feature, one senior, four juniors, three sophomores, as well as two incoming freshman. This should become Henderson and Singler’s team. Paulus will remain a sharp shooter outside, but if Duke wants to avoid another early exit in the tournament, they will need two things to happen.

First, Nolan Smith has to become a point guard. He has the goods, he has the speed, and he has the shot, but he needs to learn to run the offense. I can’t even remember the last time he earned an assist. Unlike Paulus, Smith is athletic enough to defend better, quicker guards.

Second, someone needs to become a MAN inside, because there isn’t any help coming from recruiting. Lance Thomas has the energy and he’s shown flashes, but until he gains about 30 pounds, he’ll remain a boy among men.

Zoubek is a tall, slow, white guy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be productive. If you watched Zoubek his freshman year, it was quite painful. He was down-right awful. The guy got called for traveling, just checking into the game. Compared to last year, this year’s Zoubek is a freaking All-American. If he can continue to improve, develop some offensive moves (and stop bringing the ball down low, turning himself into 6’4), he could, maybe, possibly be an Aaron Grey-type player. That of course is best-case scenario.
Zoubek is a tall, slow, white guy, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be productive. If you watched Zoubek his freshman year, it was quite painful. He was down-right awful. The guy got called for traveling, just checking into the game. Compared to last year, this year’s Zoubek is a freaking All-American. If he can continue to improve, develop some offensive moves (and stop bringing the ball down low, turning himself into 6’4), he could, maybe, possibly be an Aaron Grey-type player. That of course is best-case scenario. /

I don’t ever foresee Taylor King becoming a big-time forward, he’s too small at 6-6. He needs to defend better, as well as develop a dribble drive. Yes, I know, he can shoot a three from the parking lot, but Duke doesn’t lack guys who can shoot threes.

Kyle Singler? Forget about it. That’s not his game.

Besides Smith taking over at point, Duke’s needs Thomas and Zoubek to produce between them 20/15;, meaning together they score 20 and grab about 15 boards per game, splitting time. Oh yeah, don’t miss 17-straight threes either.

I also believe Duke needs to hit the road more in the non-conference portion of the schedule. In the tournament, when you are the higher seed, more than likely, the fans are naturally going to root against you (everyone loves a good dog). When you’re the high-seeded Duke team, then everyone is going to be rooting against you. Against West Virginia, every foul that went against the Mountaineers, the crowd booed relentlessly. The last time I checked, West Virginia wasn’t known for their fan base. The Blue Devils need to hit the road, take some loses and know how to play in hostile territory against teams they don’t usually play.