January 24, 2006
DURHAM -- There was a hint of satisfaction in Mike Krzyzewski's voice in the moments after No. 1 Duke's recent loss to Georgetown.
No, he wasn't happy with the defeat, and he was even less satisfied with his team's lackluster effort in its first loss of the season. But he responded with something like glee when Duke radio man Bob Harris suggested that there will be no more questions about the Blue Devils going undefeated in 2006.
"There won't be any more articles about that!" Krzyzewski responded, sounding almost like he was saying, "I told you so."
Indeed, he did, when responding to a question earlier that week about Duke's chances of making it through the season unscathed.
"I'm not that big a guy when it comes to predictions," Krzyzewski said recently. "But I know this: I've coached for 31 years, and I've never had an undefeated team."
Of course, nobody in college basketball has had an undefeated team since Indiana accomplished the feat 30 years ago. Ironically, Krzyzewski just missed being a part of that group. He was a graduate assistant under coach Bobby Knight in 1974-75, when Indiana finished 31-1, losing to Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final. Krzyzewski left Bloomington after that season to take over at Army.
Since then, college basketball has had quite a few great teams, including several coached by Krzyzewski, and none of them made it through a season unbeaten. As the Georgetown loss proved, this Duke bunch is not one of those great teams. Not yet, anyway.
"We showed our immaturity, I think," Krzyzewski said. "You win a big game in conference (as Duke did earlier in the week versus N.C. State), and it's all set up for a common team to lose. To win, you have to be an uncommon team. We were not."
The Blue Devils have been very good most of the time this season. Even when they were not that good, they rose to the occasion ... until the Georgetown game. But it's hard to label a team that requires a miracle to beat Virginia Tech at home or scrapes by Drexel on a neutral floor as "uncommon."
That didn't stop the pundits from raising the issue of a perfect season when Duke's record climbed to 17-0, matching the best start in school history. It's become a predictable media mantra for any team that even hints at perfection. St. Joseph's went through it in 2004. Illinois had to deal with it in 2005. The NFL's Indianapolis Colts saw it this past fall.
Even though Duke was just one of three remaining unbeaten teams in college basketball, the speculation already was heating up, so much so that after Duke's slow start in the victory over N.C. State, Krzyzewski suggested that his team was feeling the pressure
"You write whatever you want, but I think sometimes our kids play to that," Coach K said. "They didn't have good looks on their faces. There's a lot of pressure on them, so that's why I told them (at halftime), 'Just have fun and play.'"
Duke came back to edge the Wolfpack, pulling away with a late run for a deceptive 13-point win. But the victory couldn't hide the cracks that were starting to show in Krzyzewski's defense. Sophomore big man Cedric Simmons went off for a career-high 28 points, the second time this season that reigning national defensive player of the year Shelden Williams has given up career nights to an opposing big man.
In both cases, he was put on an island by Coach K's defensive strategy. Against both Indiana and N.C. State, Krzyzewski was determined to take away the opponent's three-point shooting. The Hoosiers, averaging 14 three-pointers per game before meeting Duke, converted just two of 10 treys. The Wolfpack, which averaged an ACC-best 52.4 percent on three-pointers in its first four league games, hit just 2 of 11 against the Devils.
The cost of defending the perimeter was giving up 34 points to Indiana's Marco Killingsworth and 28 to Simmons.
DEFENSE VULNERABLE OUTSIDE, INSIDE
Those weren't the only opponents to burn Duke's defense. Exactly one week before the Georgetown loss, Clemson guard Vernon Hamilton, averaging 12 points a game, sliced and diced the Blue Devils for 31 points. And Sean Dockery's dramatic 45-foot game-winner against Virginia Tech wouldn't have been necessary if the Blue Devils could have kept Tech guards Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon from driving into the lane at will.
But none of the problems that have cropped up this season could prepare Krzyzewski for what he saw against Georgetown. The Hoyas, running a similar Princeton-style offense to the one employed by N.C. State, consistently beat the Blue Devils on the drive. Georgetown shot 61.5 percent from the field and had assists on 24 of 32 field goals.
"We didn't do a good job of defending and keeping contact," Duke freshman Greg Paulus said. "This team, they did a great job of passing and cutting, and sometimes we either overplayed or we took our eye off the ball."
Duke clearly misses sophomore wing guard DeMarcus Nelson, who brings an athleticism to the position that the other perimeter players lack. For much of the season, Krzyzewski has covered up Nelson's absence (he should be back soon after suffering a bone bruise against Maryland) by leaning on the ACC's top shotblocker as a last line of defense.
But when Duke's perimeter defenders were beaten by Georgetown's guards and quick forwards, there was no back line of defense. Although much was made of Williams' invisibility on the offensive end (how did he get just eight shots?), far more important was his invisibility at the defense end.
Part of that was a tactical decision by Georgetown coach John Thompson III, who decided to bench immobile 7-2 center Roy Hibbert. (He played just 12 minutes.) That forced Williams to defend a smaller, quicker post player out on the floor.
"I couldn't give any help-side defense," Williams said. "They kind of have a similar style to N.C. State, where I'm guarding the high post for the majority of the game. That's one of the things that can allow a lot of back-door stuff."
Is it a "thing" that can allow future Duke opponents to shred the Blue Devils' defense the way the Hoyas did?
Krzyzewski can hope that Nelson's imminent return helps remedy the problem. But the coach also suggested that the real issue is a matter of focus and effort.
"Georgetown played like they wanted it every second of the game," he said. "We did not play that way. We have to have everybody hungry and wanting to get it done. Sometimes, the only way to get better is to get smacked in the mouth."
That's funny, because one theme of the modern focus on unbeaten teams is the debate as to whether that team would be better off with a loss to "take the pressure off." Not long after the Georgetown defeat, ESPN commentator Digger Phelps pulled out that cliché, suggesting that Duke would be better off for losing.
Maybe he's right, but it's interesting to note that the most recent teams to make long unbeaten runs -- St. Joseph's in 2004, Illinois in 2005, the Colts this past fall -- all lost games late in the regular season, thus "taking the pressure off." Yet all three ended up losing in the postseason.
If Duke is looking for a better omen, the Blue Devils can look back to 1992, when the only other Duke team to open 17-0 also lost its 18th game, a hard-fought loss at North Carolina. That Krzyzewski-coached team lost just one more regular-season contest, en route to the national title.
Of course, that was a great Duke team. Unless this squad finds a way to mend its defensive problems, that's an adjective that won't be attached to the 2005-06 Blue Devils.
P.S. There actually has been one Duke basketball team to get to 18-0 on the season, although not in real life. In the current film "Glory Road," there's a montage shot that shows Texas Western climbing up the top 10 midway through the 1966 season. The shot shows No. 2 Duke at 18-0. In reality, the 1966 Blue Devils lost their third game of the 1965-66 season at South Carolina, and they were just 16-2 after 18 games, also losing a February matchup against future Duke coach Bucky Waters at West Virginia.