March 25, 2008
DURHAM Late in February, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski found himself involved in a brief controversy with North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
The brouhaha was the result of a question on Williams' weekly radio show that prompted the UNC coach to believe that Krzyzewski was taking a shot at him and his program for over-publicizing injuries. However, the issue raised during the K-Williams fracas led to some crucial misconceptions about Duke's season-ending loss to West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The issue is Coach K's refusal to publicize injuries and illnesses, unless they result in players missing games. He's reluctant to discuss physical problems until those problems are resolved. That's what happened in February. His remark that touched off the debate with Williams dealt with the sprained knee that limited freshman Nolan Smith in a number of games. Krzyzewski brought the injury up only after Smith had scored 21 points in the loss at Wake Forest.
There was a major physical issue that had a lot to do with Duke's lackluster play in two NCAA Tournament games in Washington, D.C.
Had the Blue Devils somehow survived against West Virginia, it's likely that the Duke coach would have revealed the extent of the flu virus that ravaged his team. Instead, after the loss, Coach K absolutely refused to use the illness as an excuse. He even dodged a direct question about the health of senior team captain DeMarcus Nelson.
Nelson clearly was ill. It didn't take a medical degree to see Nelson cough his way through a television interview in the locker room on the day before the West Virginia game to understand that. How much did that have to do with his lousy performance in the two NCAA games?
Remember, during the regular season, Nelson was one of the ACC's best all-around players. He averaged 15.2 points per game, shot 50.6 percent from the field (40.8 from three-point range), was second on the team with 6.0 rebounds per game and was the team's second-best distributor with more than three assists per game. On top of that, he was voted the ACC's defensive player of the year.
He was horrible in the two Washington games four points and four rebounds in the narrow one-point win over Belmont, then six points and two rebounds in the loss to WVU. He missed 14 of 17 shots from the floor and had just one assist and six turnovers. Worse, he was a statue on defense, beaten off the dribble time after time.
So why did an obviously subpar Nelson play 57 minutes in the two games? The answer is that Coach K, who also was battling the illness, didn't have a healthy replacement.
Nelson wasn't the only Duke player with the flu. Freshman forward Kyle Singler, the ACC's rookie of the year, also was ill. So was sixth man Jon Scheyer, who managed to play better with the virus than his stricken teammates. Freshmen Smith and Taylor King also were below par physically.
Would a healthy Duke team have showed up better against Belmont and West Virginia? That's one of those questions that is going to haunt Blue Devil fans just as, 42 years later, many still wonder if Duke could have beaten Kentucky in the 1966 Final Four with a healthy Bob Verga.
Then-Duke coach Vic Bubas did his best to stop that speculation at the time by telling reporters, "I don't want a man to go out of this room and say that I said we could have beaten Kentucky with a well Bob Verga. But we are better a whole lot better when he is healthy."
Similarly, the 2008 Blue Devils were better a whole lot better with a healthy Nelson, Singler and company.
SOME THEMES QUITE ALARMING
Krzyzewski first made his reputation as an NCAA Tournament coach. He still has more NCAA Tournament wins than any coach in history (69), and his NCAA winning percentage (76.7) is still the best of any active coach.
Still, it's been four years since Coach K has guided Duke to the Final Four, and that matches the longest dry spell of his remarkable career. Worse, this is the third season in a row in which Duke has slumped late in the season.
In 2006, the J.J. Redick/Shelden Williams Blue Devils were 27-1 and ranked No. 1 nationally at the end of February. But that team lost its last two regular-season games (at FSU, UNC in Cameron). It did win the ACC Tournament and reach the Sweet 16, but a loss to LSU left the Devils a mere 5-3 down the stretch after that 27-1 start.
That was just a sign of what was to come. A year ago, Duke fought its way to an 18-3 record and a No. 8 national ranking. But an overtime loss at Virginia started a four-game slide and sent Duke plummeting to a 4-8 finish that included first-round losses in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
This year's team peaked Feb. 13, with a second victory in a little more than two weeks over Maryland. Duke was 22-1, with a two-game lead in the ACC regular-season race (thanks to a victory at UNC) and a No. 2 national ranking.
The Devils didn't exactly collapse down the stretch, but they did stumble home with five losses in the last 11 games, including three in the last five.
It's interesting to note that between 1998 and 2006, Duke won at least five postseason (ACC and NCAA tournament) games each season. Between 1998 and 2004, Duke's only NCAA losses came to teams that would reach the NCAA title game. In 2005 and 2006, Duke lost to Final Four-bound teams.
It was easy to write off 2007 no postseason wins and a first-round knockout by nonentity VCU as an aberration. But this year's late-season slump makes two years in a row that Duke has stumbled home.
It's possible to argue that in 2007 (and 2006 for that matter), Duke slumped late because Krzyzewski overworked his key players during the regular season. But nobody on the 2008 roster was among the ACC leaders in minutes played. He used his bench extensively in 2008 to keep his team fresh.
So why did Duke stumble home once again?
THERE'S ALWAYS NEXT YEAR
Everyone will have to wait until next spring to see whether or not Krzyzewski's program is really on a downward spiral or merely experiencing a brief run of bad luck.
The answer will have to wait until the postseason. Nobody is going to get excited if the 2008-09 Blue Devils get to the end of February with another gaudy record.
That certainly could happen. Krzyzewski returns every key player except Nelson, and prep All-American guard Elliot Williams could offer a big boost.
The real question is this: What will Coach K do about his team's lack of size and strength inside? He tried to address the issue in recruiting, but 6-11 prep superstar Greg Monroe picked Georgetown over Duke, and the one frontcourt addition 6-7 forward Olek Czyz is not regarded as a high-impact player.
Instead, Krzyzewski's inside answer is likely to come from the current roster. He has suggested that 7-1 Brian Zoubek will play a larger role next season. In addition, another year of maturity and work in the weight room should make Singler and 6-8 Lance Thomas more effective inside players.
Duke's prospects for 2008-09 are good. But until the Blue Devils re-establish themselves with another strong March run, it's going to be hard to shake the perception that this is a program in decline.