Revolving door to Duke basketball doghouse impedes individual growth

Duke basketball forward Matthew Hurt (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)
Duke basketball forward Matthew Hurt (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images) /

Changing lineups and unclear roles appear to have done a number on the nosediving Duke basketball team.

Quick, what is the Duke basketball starting lineup? Trick question. There isn’t one. And therein lies a problem.

Despite now being 29 games into the season — 23-6 overall and 13-5 in the ACC following Saturday night’s 52-50 loss at Virginia — Mike Krzyzewski still hasn’t made a permanent choice. However, according to the 73-year-old’s comment to the media after Duke’s home win over Florida State on Feb. 10, he doesn’t intend to ever stick with just one this season.

“Sometimes, when you have a starting lineup, you put a ceiling on the other guys in ego, in opportunity, in all that,” said the 40th-year Duke basketball head coach, who has used 12 different combinations and never called upon the same one more than seven times in a row or nine times total, “and it hasn’t happened here with this group.”

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Well, three weeks later, something bad has happened. Three defeats in four games. All at the hands of unranked teams. By an average of 12 points. Each time squandering an opportunity to either remain at or climb to No. 1 in the conference standings. Now No. 4 as a result of the disappointing stretch. Altogether describing a most unsettling way to enter March.

Against the Cavaliers, the L came with a side order of shaken confidences galore. The Duke basketball starting five of sophomore point guard Tre Jones plus the four freshmen appeared for the fifth time overall (3-2) and for the first time since November. Only Jones and center Vernon Carey Jr. played like starters, though, each contributing a game-high 17 points while the other eight Blue Devils who saw action shot a combined 6-for-34 from the field (17.6 percent).

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One of the other three Duke basketball freshmen, forward Matthew Hurt, exemplifies the kind of hurt that comes from frequent longterm stays on the bench.

The 6-foot-9, 215-pound former five-star recruit — who has now started 22 games but hadn’t done so since the team’s 88-66 embarrassment at N.C. State that triggered the ongoing collapse — played only nine minutes in Charlottesville, finishing with zero points, zero rebounds, zero assists, zero blocks, and one steal.

Hurt, who has not suffered any reported injuries all season, has seen as few as five minutes in a game and as many as 33. Four times he’s played more than 30. Four times he’s played less than 10. His minute totals from the other 21 outings have covered most of the numbers between 10 and 30.

Just as plants need a consistent water supply to yield maximum growth, young players — as well as veterans who still have plenty of room to grow — need a consistent supply of minutes. Without some semblance of stability and the subsequent feeling of being wanted, some of the role players are bound to grow tired of an unfulfilling grind.

Once a consistent weapon and energy provider, freshman Cassius Stanley is suddenly an unknown commodity from one game to the next. Across the past 10 outings, the high-flying shooting guard has twice chipped in more than 20 points but also twice contributed only four points — and fewer than 10 half the time.

Though Stanley’s minutes have been relatively consistent, the fact he has had to adapt to so many different starting and closing lineups has likely hindered his own growth to some degree.

Meanwhile, fellow Duke basketball rookie Wendell Moore, who scored two points at UVA after dropping a career-high 25 at Wake, has seen a gradual increase to his minutes all season. Yet with a range of 10 to 40, the forward’s playing time hasn’t exactly been predictable.

As for the wildly fluctuating playing time of the role players, um, that’s just way too much of a hot mess to fully detail without suffering a migraine. So here’s the CliffsNotes version:

  • After regularly playing double-digit minutes, Jack White has seen as few as one minute and as many 14 across the past eight games (while shooting a combined a 1-for-12 from the field).
  • After probably getting his mail sent to Coach K’s Duke basketball doghouse during the entire month of January, Alex O’Connell had a six-game stretch of double-digit minutes before seeing only three against the Cavaliers (a reliable threat from deep his first two seasons in Durham, his 3-point percentage is a paltry 27.3 this season).
  • After playing double-digit minutes as a solid contributor the entire month of December, Joey Baker must now have no clue as to what his role will be in any given contest (as a result, he’s 5-for-20 from the field across the past seven games).
  • After inexplicably fouling out in four minutes of action against Wake, Javin DeLaurier inexplicably played 23 minutes on Saturday (no doubt to the delight of UVA’s bigs).
  • After rarely touching the court his first two seasons, Jordan Goldwire has played 20 or more minutes in all but nine games this season; yet like Stanley, his contributions have become inconsistent (which may also have to do with the inconsistent presences of his above counterparts).
  • Finally, after a career performance against Wake, Justin Robinson for some unknown reason did not play at all against UVA.

So outside of Jones and Carey Jr., one giant question exists:

Who provides what?

With the postseason just around the corner, you’d think we’d know that answer by now. But all we can know for sure at this point is that Coach K often yanks guys after one mistake and sometimes seems to pick lineups and subs out of a hat.

In summation, without an environment conducive to individual growth, these frazzled Blue Devils are sure to wither away well before March’s end (possibly even taking a six-game losing streak into the next Duke basketball season, at least for those who choose to stick around).

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