Duke basketball: Coach K did what Virginia needed him to do

Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)
Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images) /

Instead of playing the type of will-imposing Duke basketball of yesteryear, the Blue Devils again played into the hands of a confident conference foe on the road and left with a depressing loss.

The score alone should be enough to show that the 52-50 defeat at Virginia on Saturday night was primarily the result of a strategic failure on the part of Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff.

The score alone is definitely enough to show Krzyzewski did little to help keep the bulk of the game from becoming just as boring and snail-paced as the Cavaliers wanted.

Rather than have Tre Jones stick to pushing the pace — which was the case for a stretch when the Blue Devils erased an early six-point deficit and then again when they turned a 25-25 halftime tie into a 35-28 lead — Krzyzewski played into the hands of defending national champion Tony Bennett by allowing both teams to casually walk the ball up the floor.

Coach K should have instructed Jones & Co. to quickly attack the basket on every possession. Instead, the Blue Devils regularly let the Cavaliers get in the flow of their defense — when they’re at their best — and they often let the shot clock wind all the way down, forcing themselves into either desperate prayers or no prayer at all (see: guards not seeming to realize the clock was expiring).

And Coach K should have told his club to pop Virginia in the mouth with sustained fullcourt pressure. That way, Duke would have at least had a prayer at controlling the tempo and generating easy buckets in transition — which surely would’ve boosted role players’ self-assurance.

Otherwise, if not to keep legs fresh enough to play non-stop pressure defense intense enough to rattle a team as composed as Virginia, what even was the point of Coach K using 10 players?

Well, maybe his intention was to see if someone other than Jones, who never caught a breather despite all the subs, could catch fire from outside. Nope. Not so much. Nine Blue Devils attempted at least one 3-pointer, shooting a combined 4-for-17 (Jones was 3-for-5).

Maybe the intention of Duke basketball’s five-time national champion was to see if anyone other than Jones and Vernon Carey Jr., who each scored a game-high 17 points, could produce significant offense. Nope. Not so much. Each of the other eight Blue Devils he gave minutes to shot no better than 40 percent and contributed no more than six points.

Seemingly no Duke basketball fan on Twitter could understand why Coach K didn’t give the team’s 11th man, senior Justin Robinson, any chance at all to build on a career performance at Wake Forest (one of the few bright spots from Tuesday’s 113-101 double-overtime loss).

If the 73-year-old was to have any hope of getting more out of his group against the vaunted pack-line defense and disciplined execution of Bennett’s bunch, then he would have needed to take more chances.

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Yes, pressing a team like Virginia, which fully understands how to advance the ball without dribbling, is dangerous. Doing so can lead to easy buckets on the wrong end. On the other hand, the Cavaliers are only going to allow themselves to play but so fast.

So by not taking risks, Coach K did what Bennett needed him to do for his Cavaliers to keep the game close in the closing minutes. At that point, Virginia drew upon its experience in such low-scoring last-minute affairs. The rest is history.

Granted, Virginia (21-7, 13-5 ACC), riding a six-game win streak entering March, is suddenly a serious problem for anyone.

Meanwhile, though, Duke (23-6, 13-5), having lost three of its past four, is now essentially without an identity. And if Coach K continues to lead his Blue Devils into playing to opponents’ strengths, then they’ll have a tough time ever finding an effective one.

Plus, they may have only four games left to try, beginning with a revenge opportunity on Monday at 7 p.m. (ESPN) when N.C. State, who humiliated this Duke basketball team by 22 points on Feb. 18, comes to Durham.

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