Duke basketball: Until hunger returns, Blue Devils are overrated

Duke basketball (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images) /

As if they are satisfied with overhyped accomplishments, the Duke basketball players and coaches currently seem too passive to compete in March.

The Duke basketball team sits No. 5 on the 2020 Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings with three wins against the top 20: No. 1 Kansas, No. 7 Michigan State, and No. 17 Florida State. While that all looks fine and dandy, a closer look at the whole story says to hold off on giving the Blue Devils what they least need at the moment: a pat on the back.

A closer look shows the Spartans fading fast with nine total losses, including four of their last seven. A closer look shows that after those three notable wins, you have to scroll all the way down to No. 51 Syracuse to find the next, meaning only three of Duke’s 23 victories came against the top 50.

A closer look shows four of the squad’s five defeats came against opponents outside the top 50 (with the exception being the L at home to No. 14 Louisville on Jan. 18). Therefore, a closer look shows the Blue Devils have more losses to teams outside the top 50 than wins over teams inside the top 50.

A closer look shows Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski is — as many fans feared yet predicted — in the process of cutting his rotation down to eight. After typically sticking to his 10-deep strategy through January, in each of the past five non-overtime games, eight or fewer players have seen double-digit minutes.

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A closer look shows, with fewer breaks for his best players, Krzyzewski has essentially left himself with no choice in recent outings but to essentially abandon the type of fullcourt pressure that 1) once stymied opposing backcourts, 2) led to Duke’s most impressive stretches of the season, and 3) kept his Blue Devils playing with passion and energy.

Just in case someone is thinking of excusing the dwindling playing time for reserves, a closer look shows the Blue Devils have been relatively fortunate on the injury front this season.

A closer look shows opposing coaches more engaged in happenings on the court than the Duke basketball staff as of late. Except when going berserk on either the officials or Cameron Crazies, Coach K has primarily remained seated during games — as if the players will magically exhibit more fight without seeing much from their leader — and his cohorts look too timid to stand up on his behalf.

But what does all this mean? Well, that all depends on who answers the question: it means whatever you tell yourself it means. Former Duke basketball champ and current ESPN analyst Jay Williams shared his thoughts about the Blue Devils on Wednesday:

“Their effort is something you shouldn’t have to teach. It should be there every day…Now, we’re seeing their youth come out on the road against a team that is at the bottom in the ACC…Defense travels…I’d rather have the offensive woes coming into [play] than questioning where my team is defensively as it relates to a standard of effort that we get every night.”

Duke basketball optimists are saying Coach K has his bunch in position to beat the best of the best in late March and early April — and that those who dare to ever question him or his teams aren’t true fans. Duke basketball pessimists, on the other hand, are saying his 40th group of Blue Devils is more likely to fall to a lower-seeded team before ever reaching the latter stages of the NCAA Tournament — and to not ever question him or his players is a disservice to them.

Again, if you prefer, go ahead and view the recent punches in the mouth from two teams with a combined 26 losses as mere anomalies (or as more a sign of parity than a reason to worry). Besides, trusting a 73-year-old Duke basketball legend with five national titles to figure it all out on his own does make sense.

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Yet do bear in mind that Duke’s projected seed for the Big Dance is extremely fragile at the moment, so realize an early exit from March Madness possibly wouldn’t be much of an upset at all.

Prior to the 22-point defeat at No. 53 N.C. State last week, the Blue Devils were vying for a No. 1 seed. Prior to Tuesday’s 12-point double-overtime loss at No. 95 Wake Forest, they still seemed in line for a No. 2 seed. Now, if the season ended today, seeing that a significant drop from No. 7 in the AP Poll is all but a certainty next week, they would likely be a No. 3 or No. 4 seed (ESPN guru Joe Lunardi hasn’t updated his Bracketology since Monday).

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Of course, the season doesn’t end today. Yes, a No. 2 seed definitely remains a possibility. On the flip side, considering that three straight wins to close out league play and a trophy from the conference tournament one week later wouldn’t mean as much as usual because of the relatively weak ACC this season — notice that only three teams are among the top 40 — a No. 1 seed may now be completely out of reach.

And the worst-case scenario is somewhere around a No. 6 seed, if not a touch lower. After all, the three remaining regular-season contests begin with a road game at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) against No. 47 Virginia, last season’s national champ and a surging squad with five straight wins.

Then come home games against N.C. State and North Carolina, who each destroyed Duke for large chunks of their first meetings (sure, the Blue Devils fought back to stun the Tar Heels with a glorious overtime win on Feb. 8, but that fact is sure to make the rivals even thirstier for blood the second go-round).

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Furthermore, Duke’s first matchup in the ACC Tournament will likely be against some team needing at least a couple of quality wins to earn an NCAA bid.

Long story short, it’s time the Blue Devils start playing like they’re as hungry as a bubble team. If they don’t, then the season could come to a devastating end after only five more games, at which point all the talk about the Duke basketball program regularly peaking in November (see the past two season-opening wins over Kentucky and Kansas) would rightly resurface.

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Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more updates, analyses, and opinions regarding the 2019-20 Duke basketball team.