Myths – Tired Legs


Over the past few years, I’ve heard a few theories regarding Duke, often involving their recent struggles to reach the final four. In this edition of “Myths” we’re going to attempt to debunk one of them.


This one is a very, very, very popular theory. Yet is it just a B.S. myth? First, the record. Duke has struggled late in season. This is a fact. This includes February and the tournament.

While I’ve heard many reasons for the struggles, people (including this blog) have worried about the Devils “legs” at the end of the season. The belief is, Coach K overworks his players by having them play too many minutes.

While we have on many occasions expressed concerns with Coach’s rotation and we’ve complained about the big three’s minutes this season, it has less to do with these guys getting tired and more to do with avoiding injury (late in games) and getting the younger players valuable minutes.

The fact is, I’ve never been a big believer in the “too tired to win the tournament” theory. If anything, Duke’s championship history should teach you otherwise. Let’s look at some of Duke’s most successful teams.

In 2001, Duke won the national title running a basic seven-man rotation, but in reality six players played 27 minutes each (led by Battier’s 34.9 minutes per game). Duke’s two backup big men, Casey Sanders and Matt Christensen failed to crack 10 minutes per game and as for Sanders, his playing time is blotted because he barely played until Boozer got hurt and he suddenly was starting.

What about that 1991-1992 championship team? They played a six-man rotation, with five players playing 30+ minutes.

My point is, Duke has always run tight rotations, with starters logging tons of minutes, yet have had plenty of success late in the season and in the tournament.

This year of course, our big three are producing record-setting minutes. Scheyer leads the team at 36.1, while Singler and Smith have 34.8 and 34.5. That’s a lot of minutes. Yet, how does that compare to other teams and players?

Well, Kansas, Texas and Villanova all have no one over 32 minuter per game.
Syracuse has Wes Johnson, who plays 34 minutes per game.

What about Kentucky? Wall, Bledsoe and Patterson all play over 30 minutes per game, led by Wall’s 33+ per game. That’s two freshman guards playing 30+ per game. Shouldn’t that be a concern since “tired legs” is a problem?

Let’s compare the two point guards, John Scheyer and John Wall. Scheyer plays two more minutes per night. Over 20 games so far, that would mean he has basically played one more game than Wall. Come tournament time, that will be about a game and a half.

Is one more game really the difference between being to tired to play well in the tournament and being a favorite to win it all? It must be because again, I haven’t heard anyone worry or stress about Wall’s minutes. There’s a reason of course and we’ll get that soon enough.

Now after saying all that, I really have done a shit job breaking down this theory. That’s the thing about this theory, that’s why it is so popular. The numbers just seem to add up. So let me try to give you my reasons for Duke’s lack of success late in season and in the post-season.

1) We’ll start off with Duke’s late season swoons. Since Duke’s last Final Four appearance, Duke has started off hot, but faltered around the end of January. Let’s look back.

2004-2005: 15-0 start, 12-6 finish (Sweet 16)
2005-2006: 27-1 start, 5-3 finish (Sweet 16)
2006-2007: 13-1 start, 9-10 finish (Round One)
2007-2008: 22-1 start, 6-5 finish (Round Two)
2008-2009: 18-1 start, 12-5 finish (Sweet 16)

Inside of blaming tired legs and playing time though, maybe it’s the simple fact that the competition gets better. Sure Duke plays a few good teams early, but most of those non-conference games are winnable. Late in the season, Duke is playing in the heart of a brutal ACC schedule, where teams that are familiar with each other are fighting for a spot in the dance.

Even when Duke won championships and made it to the Final Four, most of their loses happened later in the season.

The 2000-2001 squad started 19-1, but ended the regular season 7-3. They won the title. The 2003-2004 team (the last to make it to the Final Four) started 21-1, finishing the season 6-4, yet still led Connecticut by 10 with three minutes to play.

Don’t tell me they just suddenly got tired. Maybe they just got beat by a better team, which brings me to my second thought.

2) Maybe Duke hasn’t advanced recently because they haven’t been good enough. Can it be that simply, that Duke simply hasn’t had the talent to be a Final-Four team?

Let’s investigate.

In 200-2001, Duke won the championship. The following year, despite returning three of the country’s best players, they fell in the Sweet 16? Was it because of playing time, or was it because Duke lost two key players from the 2001 championship team? Both Shane Battier and Nate James graduated. Duhon filled in for James, but there was no one who could fill the shoes of Battier. He was the difference maker in the 2001 and he was the missing piece in 2002.

In later years, JJ Redick and Sheldon Williams would be the stars. In 2003-2004, they made it to the Final Four. The next two years, they fell in the Sweet 16. Did they get tired? No. The difference was, in 2004, Duke’s third option was Luol Deng. He played only one season and the coaching staff never found a replacement who could step right in and no one developed into a true third-option.

Over the last four years, the talent pool has not lived up to the history.There hasn’t been a Elton Brand, Shane Battier or Jason Williams over the past few years. We’ve had some good players, but no greatness.

Think back to that 2006-2007 squad that went 9-10 down the stretch. Were they tired? No. Four of the top eight players were freshman. For Christ’s sake, Lance Thomas was starting as a freshman. I barely think he should be starting now as a senior (although his defense has been great this year). That starting lineup consisted of two sophomores, one junior and two freshman.

Since then, Duke has struggled to build a team, yet somehow has managed to win 25+ games per season while doing it. That’s a good thing, but let’s not kid ourselves, these teams have not been title teams.

Last year’s squad got beat by Villanova and when I say “got beat” I mean “got crushed” by the Wildcats. The popular excuse was “tired legs,” but come on, folks. They won the ACC tournament and the big three shot the ball well in rounds one and two. They beat a Texas team that currently is a top-10 team.

Did their body just give in against Nova, or maybe, just maybe did they get beat by a better, deeper, more athletic team? It ain’t easy beating a solid team like Nova playing 3 on 5 basketball, which is basically what Duke did.

The problem is talent, not minutes.