DURHAM – Duke’s David Cutcliffe has not been able to make good use of his team’s breakout 10-win season in 2013, as he filled the great majority of his 2014 recruiting class early.
On the whole, the class is the result of Duke’s six-win 2012 season, which was the school’s best showing in 18 years.
But as the 2014 signing date approached, Cutcliffe’s brilliant season did apparently pay one major dividend. Edgar Cerenord, a three-star defensive tackle from Plantation, Fla., verbally committed to Duke during his official recruiting visit.
That’s a huge pickup for Duke, which has had a well-documented difficulty in landing defensive linemen, especially tackles. Cerenord has 17 FBS offers, including two from the SEC (Tennessee and Arkansas) and two from the Big Ten (Purdue and Indiana), as well as 2013 bowl teams Cincinnati, Central Florida and East Carolina.
That leaves one target left on Duke’s 2014 radar – four-star wide receiver Trevon Lee of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Lee was supposed to visit Durham on the weekend of Dec. 6-8, but with Duke in the ACC title game that Saturday, Lee was forced to reschedule.
Duke’s good season should help Cutcliffe hold on to what is already the best recruiting class on paper that he’s lined up at Duke. The Blue Devils have not suffered much from decommitments during Cutcliffe’s tenure.
Of course, Duke has not had as many commitments that were offered by as many traditional programs in past years as is the case this year.
Virginia Win Was Big
It’s too early to suggest Duke saved its season with a dramatic homecourt victory over Virginia, but it’s hard to imagine how the Blue Devils could have salvaged the 2014 season if they had let that one get away – as they almost did.
“This game was our season,” sophomore Amile Jefferson said. “This game is going to mark where we started and where we turned around and we started playing for each other and started playing together and as one. It was a pivotal game for us, and we’ve just got to build on it.”
Only time will tell if Mike Krzyzewski can use the Virginia win as a stepping-stone to return to national prominence. Certainly, Duke’s next performance – a 35-point victory over N.C. State – would seem to indicate that the Blue Devils were surging. Duke then followed that up with a 21-point win at Miami.
“It’s a good build-up from beating Virginia,” Krzyzewski said after the 95-60 victory over N.C. State. “We got better this week. Hopefully we can continue to do that. We’re going to have to play that hard in order to have an opportunity to win in this league. But this afternoon was very good.”
Make no mistake – Duke was in big trouble before the Virginia game, starting 1-2 in the ACC and dropping out of the AP top 10 for the first time since November 2007. The Devils looked extremely vulnerable in a close loss to short-handed Notre Dame (which promptly lost its next three ACC games) and in a late loss at Clemson, which was just coming off a lopsided homecourt loss to Florida State.
“We’re not a very good team right now,” Krzyzewski said after that loss.
He had barely 48 hours to fix the problem before taking on Virginia, which came into Cameron as one of the ACC’s hottest teams.
The early signs were good. Duke controlled the game, leading all the way and building as much as a 13-point lead on several occasions as Krzyzewski unveiled a two-platoon substitution system. The Blue Devils were up a solid 11 points with 3:36 to play when it almost fell apart.
Virginia scored 11 points on the next four possessions to tie the game. After Malcolm Brogdon made two free throws with 38 seconds left, Virginia led for the first time all night.
Luckily for Duke, two sophomores – Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon – make winning plays down the stretch, allowing the Devils to pull out a 69-65 victory that touched off a wild celebration at Cameron. Assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski raced across the court to jump into Krzyzewski’s arms in an eerie replay of his leap in 1998 when Duke rallied to beat UNC in his Senior Day game.
Afterward, the Duke coach took the blame for Duke’s struggles, suggesting that he lost focus in the days after the Dec. 26 death of his older brother, Bill – a Chicago fire department captain.
“We haven’t been at our best since the start of conference, and I haven’t been at my best since Christmas,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s my responsibility. I’ve been knocked back. We just have to keep moving forward. Sometimes things occur that are human, and we were there tonight, and we were collectively together tonight for the first time in a couple of weeks. It was my responsibility that we weren’t (together) as much as we should.”
In both the Notre Dame loss and the Clemson loss, Duke led with 10 minutes to play but collapsed on both occasions. Krzyzewski attributed the late letdowns to fatigue – and his failure to address the problem.
“I’ve had to get more observant with my team,” he said. “I take full responsibility for those first three (ACC) games. Everything is on me. Part of that is not seeing some things. At times we would get tired because we’re not as big as some teams, so getting more guys in would help. Once we got in to conference play, the defense picks up and the physicality picks up. Sets that we were running before, people scouted them and also stopped. We ran more motion offense tonight. We just have to keep trying to figure things out for our team and be there for them.”
He explained that his unusual platooning system – four times in the first half of the Virginia game he subbed five players in at the same time – was an effort to use his bench and keep his starters fresh.
He used the same system in the first half against N.C. State, but not so much in the second. Unlike the Virginia game, when Duke still had a late lapse, the Devils never faltered against the Pack, continuing to stretch the lead until the scrubs took over in the final minutes.
“We had 10 guys in double-figure minutes and we stayed fresh,” Krzyzewski said. “We’d like to play more guys. It’s something we’ve learned over the first ACC games that the conference games take even more of a toll on you, and since we’re not this rugged team, it probably takes a bigger toll (on us).”
With Krzyzewski focused again and back at the helm, Duke appears once again to be the team picked in preseason to win the ACC. Of course, this week showed how quickly things can change – and the Devils still have to prove they can win on the road before they can be re-installed as ACC contenders. A huge test at Pittsburgh next Monday looms large.