This isn’t how anyone drew up the season in Durham. It was supposed to go a little differently.
Duke wasn’t supposed to be below .500 in ACC play on multiple occasions. Duke wasn’t supposed to have their coach ban them from their locker rooms and wearing school gear. Duke wasn’t supposed to be in the 20s in RPI near the end of January.
No, this season was supposed to go a little differently than this. And now the challenge is to alter the course, to change the narrative. Accomplishing it is easier said than done.
When Duke put together its stellar recruiting class, then Amile Jefferson got a medical redshirt and Grayson Allen returned to school for his junior year, the thinking was simple: this team was the leading contender for a national title. There would be too much talent with the freshmen, the point guard spot should be settled after it wasn’t a year ago, and Jefferson and Matt Jones would be the intangibles leaders.
From the beginning, though, it’s been anything but smooth sailing for Duke. First, top recruit Harry Giles needed knee surgery, and didn’t get into a game until after Christmas. That didn’t help him or the team. Then Jayson Tatum got hurt, and he missed the month of November. Marques Bolden got hurt, and like Tatum missed all of November, but the time missed clearly hurt him more based on results because he hasn’t done much.
That basically mitigated the emergence of Luke Kennard when he got a more prominent role. It was a great development, though not shocking because he came in very highly regarded for a reason. It means they have a little more room for error, but that has evaporated often. Allen missed one game due to injury, as he’s played through nagging injuries for a lot of the year, and he missed another due to a suspension as he had a third tripping incident. Jefferson missed two games due to injury as well.
Put another way: almost anything that could disrupt this team has happened. This news getting out can’t help, and comments from acting head coach Jeff Capel – now dealing with other adversity as we have learned of his father’s unfortunate diagnosis with ALS in recent days – hint that there is probably additional concern about this leaking out instead of staying in-house.
Duke is 2-3 with head coach Mike Krzyzewski out while recovering from back surgery, and it’s not hard to see why he did everything he could to avoid it. Not only did the competitor in him surely not want to miss games – and really, no coach does – but he had to have a sense that this team needs him more than anyone might have imagined. Perhaps the latest example of his greatness comes from the Blue Devils being 2-3 without him now, alongside the fact that the last time Duke missed the NCAA Tournament was in 1994-95, when he missed most of the season due to back surgery and they were 9-3 at the time he went out before going 4-15 the rest of the way.
This Duke team has no bad losses, but only one top 50 win and five more against teams in the bottom half of the top 100. Although, that loss to NC State at home on Monday – which drops them to 3-4 in ACC play, marking the third time they have been below .500 in conference play thus far – was a real stinker. NC State has been feast or famine, and it was a home loss, which is a rarity. It’s a game that a national title contender should not lose.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Duke will almost certainly be in the NCAA Tournament. They are still 15-5 and have no bad losses, and the potential field is rife with mediocrity. If the NCAA Tournament were to begin today, you have to think they would still have a decent seed; ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects them as a No. 5 seed, which a lot of programs would love to have. In other words, it would take a collapse of legendary proportions for them to not be playing at least halfway through March.
But this team was supposed to be a lock to go for a No. 1 seed, even the top overall seed, in the NCAA Tournament. That seems like a pipe dream right now. And this team looks more flawed all the time.
The point guard spot is not settled as expected. Frank Jackson has been good, but not great. In fact, relatively speaking he’s been invisible, as he is one of five Blue Devils who average double figure scoring but has hardly blown anyone away. Allen has played that spot at times, and Matt Jones has handled the ball as well. With that, only Tatum has been about as good as advertised among the freshmen, and his play, while good, hasn’t excited many to this point, more a product of the sky-high expectations many had for him than anything else.
The ACC is very strong and deep, something many figured would be the case before the season. As a result, Duke will only play one more game against an opponent whose RPI currently has three figures (at Syracuse on Feb. 22). After going on the road for the next two games, they will play three straight at home. And at some point, you figure Krzyzewski will be back on the bench, and at this point it appears the Blue Devils need him very much.
With more than a month to go in the regular season, there is plenty of time for Duke to turn the tide towards what was expected of them. They can right themselves and go on a big winning streak into the ACC Tournament, and continue it there. But they have to play more consistently, the freshmen need to grow faster than they have thus far, they have to overcome the adversity they have already faced and will continue to face, and above all, this team cannot afford another injury. That’s a lot that must happen, but this is a team with enough talent to make that possible.
Failing that, the season will be a good one by many standards, but not the one that most envisioned for this team at all. Many envisioned that this would be a special season.