Mental toughness is the key for these Blue Devils

Virginia Tech v DukeThere was a sense of relief for all involved with Duke Basketball after the team dismantled a big and physical Maryland team on Saturday. The Blue Devils are unaccustomed to dealing with bad losses on the whole, so getting back on the court was the only thing that would cure the blues that enveloped the team in South Florida.

In response to one of my questions in his post-game press conference, Coach Kryzewski took the time to go back and discuss the Miami game. He simply stated that Duke ran into a perfect storm -- a hurricane in this case. He mentioned the same thing I did in a previous article -- that the Blue Devils just needed to see the ball go in the hoop.

Anyone could tell that the team came prepared for battle against the Terrapins. They squelched any attempt at a run made by the Terps, as Duke remained focused and maintained their mental toughness. That was the difference, and that's what it will take moving forward while they await the return of Ryan Kelly.

From an x's and o's standpoint, it was important for this team to finally adjust to the new Kelly-less lineup. Going into the Maryland game, many were wondering where the offense would come from. As it turned out, it came in the form of freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who fought off his recent inconsistency to hit for a career-high 25 points.

But Duke will not always be able to depend on Sulaimon having monster games. So it will be important for other players to step up as well individually, and for the team to continue to find its chemistry in the absence of Kelly. Chemistry was what put the Blue Devils on top of the polls for most of the season, and it is the only thing that will return them there by season's end.

That said, it is not easy for a team to suddenly revamp its lineup in mid-season without losing that delicate chemistry. Duke pretty much had to tear down the way they were doing things and rebuild, and that rebuilding is rarely smooth. Hence, a little doubt inevitably snuck in.

In short, Duke had to find their mental toughness first and foremost. Once that confidence is established, success in other areas of the game can follow. It's analogous to when a player is in a shooting slump; he has to play hard in other aspects of the game until he can get that easy shot to get himself rolling again. Hopefully now, the Blue Devils can start to roll again.

This year's version of the Blue Devils is surely talented, and with Kelly they were a wily veteran team led by three seniors. But without Kelly, they are once again quite young, starting two freshman. No surprise that the Kelly-less Blue Devils' two ACC losses came to two of the older teams in the league in Miami and N.C. State.

Duke is expected to get the services of Ryan Kelly back in time. But the important thing right now is for the team to take the momentum from the win over Maryland to Winston-Salem on Wednesday night. It is notable that for whatever reason, Kelly has had monster games against the Deacons when other Blue Devils struggled. He won't be there obviously this time. So it will be interesting: who will step up in his place?

We'll learn a lot more about this team between the Wake Forest game and the next road game on the horizon at Florida State. The rematch with a hot N.C. State team will follow. Duke can ill afford to let up against anybody, much less come up with an effort like they did down in Coral Gables. It seems as if they've made some real adjustments to their post-Kelly world, and have developed a newfound chemistry. Whether or not he returns, the team will likely have benefitted from the struggle.

Preview: Duke vs. Wake Forest

Wake-Forest-logoThe ACC's oldest series resumes on Wednesday night at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum as Duke and Wake Forest meet for a 239th time since the two inaugural games in 1905-06, both won by Wake as they held the Devils to a combined 15 points.  Total. For the whole two games.

Safe to say, things have changed just a tad since then.  Duke fans, accustomed over the years to seeing their team with its foot on the throat of the opponent, are breathing a little easier than they were a few days ago.  Saturday's 20-point takedown of Maryland certainly calmed the nerves following the 27 point mauling at the hands of Miami in the previous game.  Rasheed Sulaimon clearly has his juju back, as he nailed three pointers from all over the court and played aggressively on D.  Quinn Cook played a brilliant floor game, even a dominant one.  Mason Plumlee was assertive in the post.  And the force-feeding of Amile Jefferson resumed; he continued to make strides at both ends of the floor.  He appears to becoming more confident each time out.  (Not counting Miami.  For anything.)  OK, OK, so Duke isn't #1 anymore.  They're all the way down to #5 in the nation.  So what?  This team is still 17-2 overall, 4-2 in the league, and trying not to look too forward to a (whisper now) Ryan Kelly return in a few weeks.

Wake Forest is just really struggling as a program under Jeff Bzdelik, now in his third season in Winston-Salem.  They were historically bad in 2010-11, going 8-24 and 1-15 in the conference, and improved only to 13-18 overall and 4-12 in the league last year.  This season they sit at 10-9 overall, and actually a surprisingly respectable 3-4 in the conference, tied for seventh place with Maryland and Clemson.  But still, this seems to be nothing like the program that produced Tim Duncan, Randolph Childress, Rodney Rogers, Josh Howard, Muggsy Bogues, Chris Paul, Jeff Teague, and many other great stars, and was a postseason fixture throughout the 1990's and most of the 2000's too.

muggsy boguesSince getting thumped by the Blue Devils back on January 5 (man, that seems like a long time ago for this team, doesn't it?) Wake came off the mat to score consecutive home wins over UVA and BC before scoring only 44 points in a decisive loss at Clemson and then losing a heartbreaker by a point in Blacksburg.  Then came perhaps the high point of the season, a big upset at home over NC State, coming back from 16 down to do it.  It was their first win over a ranked team in almost three years.  The fans stormed the court.  Could that win help them regain some momentum?  No.  On Saturday they allowed fellow bottom-feeder Georgia Tech to score the first 16 points of the game, trailed by 23 at the half, and the Jackets coasted to an easy 20 point win.  So it goes for the Deacons.

Wake just doesn't do anything particularly well.  They only score 68 ppg; they shoot only 43% as a team; they're a lousy rebounding team, and they don't pass the ball particularly well.  Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how'd you like the play?  One big problem, of course, is that they're very, very young.  Two freshman, big man Devin Thomas and guard Codi Miller-McIntyre, are averaging north of 26 minutes per game, while forwards Tyler Cavanaugh, Arnaud Moto, and Aaron Rountree, and guard Madison Jones, are all getting from 12 to 17 minutes apiece.  That's a lot.

6'7" forward Travis McKie continues to lead the Demon Deacons in scoring at 15.1 ppg on 45.5% shooting.  Guard C.J. Harris is right behind him at 14.8 ppg, and he's a good shooter -- 48% FG shooting and 43% on three's.  But after those two, nobody else scores more than 9 ppg.  McKie is also Wake's top board man, grabbing 8 per game.  Devin Thomas is right there too, at 7.6.  Nobody averages even three assists per game.  As a team, their assists-to-turnovers ratio is less than one.  For those of you scoring at home, that means they turn the ball over more frequently than they get assists on their own baskets.  Not good.

In the teams' previous meeting, in Cameron, Ryan Kelly was a huge factor.  He scored 13 of Duke's first 19 points, finished the half with 17, and despite fouling out with almost eight minutes to play, ended with a season-high 22 points in only 18 minutes of action.  Seth Curry also had 22, and this was the Quinn Cook weird stat line game:  0 for 11 from the field, with a career-high 14 assists.  All righty then.  McKie led Wake with 22 while Harris had 19.  Thomas and McKie held their own against Mason Plumlee, finishing with 12 and 11 boards, respectively.  Turnovers killed the Deacons, as Duke forced 19 while only making 6.  The only significant disappointment for Duke in that game was the reserves' inability to maintain the lead, which resulted in the starters having to go back and play some minutes in the second half that they shouldn't have had to play.

It was after the first Wake game that Coach K happened to mention in his post-game comments that "Ryan was hurt during the holidays.  He tweaked his foot."  Nobody gave it a second thought.  We all think we're listening pretty closely to the coach's interviews.  Maybe . . .we're not?  Just sayin'.

Even without Kelly, and even with the game being played in Winston, this should not be close.  I know, I know.  I wrote that I thought we'd beat Miami too.  But in that assessment I was primarily relying on the basketball knowledge of my go-to guy on the Hurricanes, Doug Fuchs.  Won't make that mistake again.  But Duke has way too many weapons for Wake, and way too much experience, to boot.  Their bigs are going to bang Mason around, like they did last time, but in that game Mason proved to be pretty adept at passing out of the post quickly.  Hence the three pointers that rained down on Wake's head.  With the Deacons being so youthful, it should be a good opportunity for Amile Jefferson to continue his development, and maybe Marshall Plumlee could get some decent burn too.  If Quinn Cook controls this game anything like he did the one against Maryland, then Wake will have no chance.

The Devils came out very focused against Maryland, and played very hard.  I would expect the same against Wake on Wednesday night.  Look, it's not like the Blue Devils aren't going to lose again this year.  They are.  But I just don't see us falling apart like we did against the Hurricanes when things start to go wrong.  They can start to go wrong against any opponent, including even a team like Wake Forest.  But I just have to believe that the Miami experience toughened this team up and helped them forge the determination to say "never again.  Not in this uniform."  That mental and emotional strength probably won't be tested against a lower tier team like the Deacons, but the more outings there are in which the Blue Devils are intense for 40 minutes, the more likely it is that the determination is there and ready to be summoned when needed.  Only time will tell.



Duke thumps Maryland behind Sulaimon’s career-high 25 points

DURHAM, N.C. - The Duke Blue Devils rebounded nicely after a blowout loss at Miami by taking out Maryland 84-64 on Saturday afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium.  The Blue Devils committed just four turnovers in the game -- none in the second half -- as Duke outscored the Terps 41-29 to pull away, and in the process improve to 17-4 overall and 4-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Blue Devils were led in scoring by Rasheed Sulaimon, who lit Maryland up with a career-high 25 points, going 6 of 8 from beyond the three-point line.  His six three pointers tied the all-time Duke record for made three-pointers by a freshman, and it was the second straight game in which he led the team in first half scoring.

All-ACC candidate Mason Plumlee added 19 points, with 15 of them coming in the second half; he finished the game an efficient 9 of 12 from the floor, and he also grabbed 7 rebounds and handed out three assists.  Plumlee has scored in double figures in all but one of the Blue Devils games this season.

Freshman Amile Jefferson continued to show improvement as well.  His play was one reason cited by Coach Krzyzewski in his assessment that this team was finding its identity without Ryan Kelly.  Jefferson scored 11 points while leading Duke in rebounding with 9 caroms, but perhaps most impressive were his three timely second half blocked shots which helped squelch any hopes the Terps had of making a run.

"He's getting stronger.  We're not exactly going to see who he is this year exactly, but given the opportunity to play, Amile will develop faster," said Krzyzewski.  He went on to say, " He's a good player.  He's going to be a really good player."

Check out Coach K's press conference comments below, and check back for more post-game videos shortly.


Big Losses Through The Years: How Many, and What Do They Mean?

Every-CloudWith the 27 point beatdown at the hands of Miami still fresh in everyone's mind, many Duke fans are worrying about the Blue Devils' ability to bounce back.  Some seem to think that it's just an aberration and that of course Duke will get off the mat and resume their stellar season.  Others believe it's the beginning of the end.  What kind of history of big losses does Duke actually have, and have those losses been predictive of the type of year the Devils will have the rest of the way?

For purposes of this article, I am considering a "big loss" to be one of 15 points or more.  And I am looking at the Coach K era, beginning in 1983-84, as that was his first NCAA team.  The year before was Dawkins and Alarie's freshman year, and the team was below .500, including losing 7 games by 15 or more, so that wouldn't really add anything to the analysis.  And yes, I understand that 15 is an arbitrary number, and that a garbage hoop at one end or the other sometimes makes a given game either count in the analysis or not count, but what are you gonna do?

OK, so in the last 29 years, starting in the 1983-84 season, how many games do you think Duke has lost by 15 points or more?  The answer, not counting the Miami game, is 23.  Duke averages almost one such loss per year.  More or less than you thought?  It's more than I would've thought.  Those 23 losses have been accumulated in 13 different seasons.  In some of those 13 seasons there was more than one big loss.  Obviously, in the other 16 years, there were no big losses as I have defined the term.

The largest defeat suffered during this 29 year period was a 31 pointer at Wake Forest in 1984, followed by the 1990 NCAA final to UNLV, which was a 30 pointer, 103-73.  Didn't have to look that score up.

Four of the 23 "big losses" have come in NCAA Tournament play, those being the losses to Seton Hall (1989), UNLV (1990), Villanova (2009) and Arizona (2011).  Three more have occurred in the ACC Tournament, those being to UNC (1991 and 1998) and to Wake Forest (1995).

As the 1995 team did not make the NCAA Tournament, that ACC Tournament loss to Wake was its last game of the year, meaning that five of the 23 (the Wake game and the four NCAA losses) have been season-enders.  So the other 18 provided opportunities for Duke to bounce back from the big loss.  Did they?

For the most part, yes.  After a big loss as I have defined it, Duke is 12-6 since 1984.  Never in this period has Duke lost consecutive games by more than 15 points.  Sometimes Duke has been fortunate enough to face a less-than-stellar opponent after a big loss, giving the Devils a real opportunity to bounce back. But not usually.  Usually they have had to come back and beat, or at least stay competitive with, a pretty good team -- usually an ACC team -- and they have been able to do so. Also, on only two occasions during this entire period, has Duke followed up a 15 point (or more) loss, no matter where it occurred, with a home loss, and the last time it happened was in 1995.  So good luck on Saturday, Terps.

Here's the history of bad losses in this period, and what happened in the next game:

1984: Lost at Wake by 31.  Followed it up with a 5 point loss at home to UNC.

1985: Lost at NC State by 18.  Followed by a 17 point win at home over Clemson.

1989: Lost at home to UNC by 20, followed by two more losses: a 4 pointer at Wake and a 15 pointer at State.  That loss to State was followed, finally, by a 30 point win at home over Clemson.

1990: Lost at UNC by 19, followed by a 28 point road win over Wake.

1991: Lost at Virginia by 17, followed by a 41 point win at home over Georgia Tech.

1995: Lost at home to State by 17, followed by a 3 point loss on the road to FSU.  Later in that incredibly difficult year, lost at UCLA by 23, followed by a two point loss at home to Maryland.

1997: Lost on a neutral floor to Indiana by 16, followed by a 52 point win over Lehigh.  Apparently, they never forgot it.

1998: Lost at UNC by 24, followed by a 16 point road win over State.

2003: Lost at Maryland by 15, followed by a 9 point road loss to State.

2007: Lost at UNC by 14, followed by an ACC Tournament loss, by 5, to State.

2009: Lost at Clemson by 27, followed by win over Miami, at home, by 3.

2011: Lost at St. John's by 15, followed by a win at Maryland by 18.

2012: Lost at Ohio State by 22, followed by a home win over Colorado State by 23.  Lost at 18 at home to UNC, followed by a 4 point win in the ACC Tournament over Virginia Tech.

So if you want to look at the glass half-empty you can say that only once has Duke had a team get beaten by 15 points or more and gone on to win a national championship, that being the 1991 team.  But looking at it half-full, look at all the outstanding teams, teams that had excellent tournament runs, that suffered a big beating earlier in the season.  The '89 team went to the Final Four.  The '90 team went to the final game.  The loaded '98 team went to the Elite Eight, and should've gone further than that.  The 2011 team was the Kyrie team, and while they lost in the Sweet 16, that almost shouldn't count.  Another week or two to work Kyrie back in, and there'd have been no beating that team.

In any event, suffering a big defeat during the season does not, repeat not, mean that the squad is doomed, the year is over, and who do we have coming in for next year?  Not at all.  Patience, folks.  We lose more games than you'd think by big-time double digits, and more often than not, we recover quite nicely, thank you, and end up having the type of season that most other schools would only dream of.

Duke Fans: Perspective, Please

NCAA BASKETBALL: FEB 09 North Carolina at DukeIt's understandable for Blue Devil fans to be worried after last night's performance against Miami. But some perspective is in order as well. Calm and reasoned analysis will soothe the nerves much more so than will flying off the handle or reacting with anger or other irrational emotions. When I put on my fan cap, last night's loss was disturbing in many ways. But on the other hand, I force myself to remember that I have seen this kind of thing before, having been around since day one of the Krzyzewski era.

Many fans cannot appreciate that perspective, because they have only been pulling for the team for a relatively short time, so all they have known is victories and championships. They haven't witnessed the team-building required to create a top-ten mainstay.  For those fans, last evening was an absolute and irredeemable train wreck, and many of them can't help themselves from ranting uncontrollably on various social forums.

Late last evening I had to remove a post on our Facebook page that lit into Coach Mike Krzyzewski, with the poster saying he was embarrassed. As if Duke is never supposed to face adversity.  Spoiled fans were uncommon early on in the Coach K era, because there was nothing to be spoiled about as he rebuilt the program after former Coach Bill Foster left the cupboard bare when he moved on to South Carolina.  But now, there are too many fans who don't remember those days, and are simply too entitled.

You think last evening was a bitter pill to swallow?  Those fans who have been around awhile remember a crushing loss to Louisville and another in the ACC Tournament to Virginia in the year before the program started to make real headway, led by the recruiting class that included Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, and David Henderson. What about the huge lead lost in the blowout Fnal Four loss to Seton Hall? The blowout loss in the finals to UNLV? Or . . . The point is Duke has lost badly before, and they will again, but they rebound from it. Remember, folks, the sign of a true fan is to stick by your team through thick and thin. Today feels like "thin," so this is the time that one's loyalty as a fan is tested.

Granted, last evening felt a little different than some big losses in the past.  Duke is no longer a program on the rise. The Blue Devils are on top, ranked #1 in the polls.  Still, those willing to be honest with themselves knew that the ranking was a bit too lofty for a team that was minus a key senior in Ryan Kelly.  With Kelly, Duke has three senior leaders who have been through the wars and collectively, they gave Duke their best on-court chemistry in quite some time.  But without Kelly, Duke becomes much younger and less cohesive, relying on unproven freshmen to play big roles before their time.  Last night, Duke went up against the most veteran team in the ACC, and the wheels simply came off.

Everyone here wants Duke to figure out how to regain the chemistry it played with earlier in the season, but to do so without Kelly. Finding that mojo may not happen as quickly as some might like.  Yes, there are some glaring shortcomings that most of the Blue Devil faithful are not accustomed to dealing with. But my point is that there is also a serious lapse of memory happening here; we have lived through this before.  Judging by some of the lunatic fringe responses on social media last night, the sky has already fallen, and the Mayans were a couple of months late.  If you want to look at it like that, of course you can.  There are always going to be glass half full and glass half empty folks, but in reality, the glass at Duke is almost always pretty darned full.

Just remember:  Duke fans have four national titles to point to, a coach with more wins (and counting) than any in history and you know what?  This team is still 16-2 and that awful loss to Miami, as rough as it was, counts as only one game.  Each season is full of ebbs and flows, ups and downs, and this is but one of them.

Anybody remember the Miracle Minute comeback by Duke versus Maryland?  The distraught Terps went out and lost their next game, and the home fans booed them off the court.  They ended up rebounding and going to the Final Four and when they did, some players like Juan Dixon did not want the fans to celebrate with them, feeling the fans had thrown them under the bus earlier in the year, and now didn't deserve to share in the glory.  Could you blame him?

In 2010, who would have predicted Brian Zoubek would take on the role he did in the second half of the season and be a leader on a championship team?  And remember, there was a bad loss or two during that season, which ended with the hanging of a banner.  Anybody remember the Georgetown game? Duke once got drilled by UNC in the regular season finale by a 96-74 score.  That team went on to beat Kansas for the National Championship.

I am in no way saying I expect that to happen this season.  But I am making it clear that a bad loss is not the end of the world, or of the season.

I have yet to spin around the web today, but I am certain some media types have already begun the "Duke stinks" bit.  Of course, these are the same guys who were honking their horn about the Blue Devils when they were beating the nation's toughest schedule.  I understand, this is an ESPN-driven, "what have you done for me lately?" world we live in, but it would sure be nice to see things with a little more perspective than that. Sure, some fans can think that Duke will continue to play as they did last evening.  Let them think that.  The fan side of me feels that Duke could lose the rest of their games this season and I would still be grateful for all the memories the program has provided, this year and in seasons past.

Duke has some issues to deal with and we'll talk about those next go-round, but we'll do so in a grounded and rational manner.  Until then, some fans need to think about what the program has done over the years.  There is a reason you decided to back the Blue Devils.  They may not always play like we'd like, but they will certainly never stay down for long.  History is proof of that.