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Big Disappointment, Relatively Speaking

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff



March 21, 2007

DURHAM — Duke's quick exit from the NCAA Tournament was big news in the college basketball world.

One reason was timing. Virginia Commonwealth's 79-77 victory in Buffalo was the only real upset during the first day of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Other than two No. 9 seeds beating No. 8 seeds — hardly upsets — the loss by No. 6 seed Duke to No. 11 seed VCU was the most significant outcome on the most by-the-book opening day in history.

But the bigger reason that Duke's loss attracted so much attention was -— in the immortal words of Pete Gillen — that "Duke is Duke," or, in this case, Duke wasn't Duke.

Lots of teams lose in the first round or even fail to make the tournament. Look at the other top programs. Recent national champions Connecticut, Syracuse, Maryland and North Carolina all missed the Big Dance entirely at some point in the last five years. UCLA missed two years in a row. Kansas lost in the first round two years in a row. Florida, Louisville, Arizona and Michigan State all lost first-round games in the last three years.

So what makes Duke special?

The answer to that is Mike Krzyzewski, who enjoyed unparalleled NCAA Tournament success over the last decade. He has more NCAA Tournament wins (68) than any coach in history. He entered this year's tournament with the best NCAA winning percentage of any active coach. He was riding a streak of nine straight Sweet 16 appearances, the second-longest such streak in history.

So, yes, when Duke loses in the first round, it's big news.

"If you're in this tournament long enough," Krzyzewski said, "you're going to go down."

But Duke doesn't go down this early very often. Although ESPN reported that this was the third time that Krzyzewski's teams were beaten in the first round, that was incorrect. His first NCAA team in 1984 lost its first game (to Washington), but that Duke team had a first-round bye and actually lost in the second round. His No. 8-seeded 1996 team — so crippled with injuries that soccer players Stan Brunson and Jay Heaps combined to play 25 minutes — did lose to No. 9 seed Eastern Michigan in a first-round game.

If that 1996 loss was understandable, so was this one.

The 2006-07 Blue Devils were simply not a great team, as Krzyzewski never tired of telling listeners. The roster did not contain a recruited senior or anything close to an All-American. One junior (starting for the first time in his career), three sophomores and three freshmen played most of the minutes.

In that context, Krzyzewski claimed that he was proud of their accomplishments — 22 wins and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

"I thank all of them for giving us the opportunity to get in the tournament," he said from the podium in Buffalo after the VCU loss. "There were 260 or 270 teams that didn't get in. It's not our birthright to be here."

Maybe not, but the NCAA Tournament does feel a little strange with Duke gone before the second weekend. However, the same flaws that plagued the Blue Devils all season haunted them against VCU.

Krzyzewski noted before the ACC Tournament that his team was just three plays away from sharing the regular-season conference title. Then his team lost in overtime to N.C. State in the quarterfinals of the ACC event in Tampa, then it opened NCAA play by losing to VCU on a shot with 1.6 seconds left.

So Krzyzewski might point out that five last-play losses cost Duke a very good season. But when a team consistently loses in the final seconds, that's not bad luck. There's some flaw.

Some of Duke's weaknesses this season were obvious. Poor free throw shooting was a bugaboo in a number of games, including the VCU loss (12 misses). Ball-handling was suspect. Duke's defense, so good for much of the season, also broke down in the clutch, although after three straight poor defensive outings going into the NCAA Tournament, the Devils limited the Rams to just 37.8 percent two-point shooting.

However, the biggest problem was the lack of a go-to guy in the clutch.

Sophomore forward Josh McRoberts does a lot of good things — he had a marvelous 22-point, 12-rebound, five-block effort against VCU — but he can't create very well. Krzyzewski gave him the ball down low in both the Virginia and FSU losses in February, and in both cases he clanked big shots. Sophomore point guard Greg Paulus emerged as the team's best shooter, but he also had trouble creating his shot in the clutch. Plus, he's such an unreliable free throw shooter (6-of-11 versus VCU) that he's not a great option down the stretch.

The fact is that Duke had nobody like Virginia's Sean Singletary, Virginia Tech's Zabian Dowdell or even VCU's Eric Maynor — all players who took the ball at the end of close games with Duke and created winning plays.

Coincidentally, the greatest such player in NCAA Tournament history was sitting in the stands at Buffalo, watching Duke search for Mr. Clutch against VCU. If only Krzyzewski could have pulled Christian Laettner out of the stands and run a play for him in the final seconds, Duke might still be playing.

VARIABLES REMAIN FOR 2007-08

As mediocre as this season turned out to be for Duke, the future looks better — and maybe much better, depending on a couple of offseason issues.

Nobody in the playing rotation will be lost to graduation, meaning that what was one of the most inexperienced teams in the country will have plenty of experience next season.

Presumably, Paulus won't be forced to sit out preseason practice with a broken foot, then struggle for half the season to regain his form. It's also fair to suggest that rising sophomores Gerald Henderson and Lance Thomas will be significantly better players, with an offseason to gain strength and work on their games. Big man Brian Zoubek has a great deal of potential, too.

Even more significantly, Krzyzewski is adding some badly needed talent. The most important addition may be Kyle Singler, a 6-8 forward from Oregon. Last month, veteran Oak Hill Academy coach Steve Smith described Singler (who scored 39 points against his team) this way: "He's as good a high school player as I've seen play in the last four or five years."

Considering that Smith coached Kevin Durant last season, those were words of high praise. Smith's own senior guard, Nolan Smith, also is headed to Duke. A son of former Louisville and NBA guard Derek Smith, the Oak Hill product will bring much-needed athleticism to Duke's perimeter. In addition, the Blue Devils will add forward Taylor King, perhaps the best long-range shooter in the high school ranks and one of the best all-around scorers.

Obviously, those three players will help. And with the added maturity of the holdovers, Duke once again should be a very good team.

But will the 2007-08 Blue Devils have a chance to be a great team?

That might depend on a couple of offseason issues:

(1) Will McRoberts return?

Most people around the Duke program think McRoberts is likely to turn pro. That's not official yet, and a year ago, McRoberts planned to go, then changed his mind. A similar reversal is possible this time. However, his return would be a big surprise to many close to the program.

(2) Will Duke land Patrick Patterson?

The 6-8 West Virginia product is the best unsigned prospect left in the senior class — a wonderfully gifted post player with long arms and great athleticism around the basket. Officially, he's down to six schools: Duke, Kentucky, Florida, Virginia, Wake Forest and West Virginia. The last three appear to be longshots, though, while Kentucky and Florida are waging a very bitter (and mutually destructive?) head-to-head battle.

Patterson had a great visit to Duke in February, when his Huntington team played in Cameron. According to numerous sources, the Blue Devils believe they have a real shot at the talented power forward. But until Patterson decides (likely in early April), it is just speculation.

Duke should be better next season, no matter what happens with McRoberts and/or Patterson. But for the Blue Devils to be a great team in 2007-08, Krzyzewski probably will need to have one or the other on the roster to provide a physically gifted low-post presence.

If this year's short season proved anything, it was that even a coach as successful as Krzyzewski needs superior talent to fashion a superior team.