The Duke Blue Devils head to Winston Salem tonight to take on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. The team is fresh off the news that Jalen Johnson will forgo the remainder of the season and I will spin that as good news or an opportunity.
Duke is in a sense in their own great reset now. The season has been rife with difficulties due to Covid restrictions and the players arriving on campus much later than usual. A bevy of learning games against out-of-conference opponents was canceled and not made up and that meant jumping right into ACC play where players were not fully aware of where their teammates wanted the ball on the court due to not playing together but for a limited time.
Young teams struggle in the current environment in college basketball. And Duke is not the only elite program to be knocked back. Add to that, the homecourt edge resembles a pick-up game atmosphere and, well, you get a disjointed affair. These freshmen have never had the Cameron Crazies to lift them or lean on, nor has a true leader or captain emerged.
There was no physically gifted can't miss prospect in this season's freshman class. No Zion Williamson or players who were physically ready from day one. But that is as much of a reflection on the freshman class on the whole where which had a lot of solid players but there was little difference in a prospect rated 15th or 88th.
But now Duke is resetting the table after Johnsons' sudden departure. The staff appears to be moving on and so should the fanbase. The players who are on the court now save one or two will return next season and they will mature and get better from a full, hopefully, normal offseason regimen.
The learning process has already begun. Players will be mentally tougher not only in the long haul but in the remaining games this season. While some of the Duke fanbase is accustomed to outrageous success under Mike Krzyzewski, you occasionally have to pay some dues.
While some of you may not know or have been a part of these dues in the past, Duke has always bounced back. And they will again.
The program is in much better shape than some realize. Recruiting is going well and we will be seeing a more seasoned version of this year's players down the road.
When a blueblood program struggles a bit the dogs or opponents gather wanting a piece and that has been the case this season. But at some point, the light will come on for this current group, for they're too good for that not to happen.
Duke has some pieces and we saw them come together a bit against N.C. State where the Blue Devils leaned on one another. While the schedule is challenging the rest of the way, it will allow this team to grow up some more and continue to come together as a unit.
In short, tough lessons can build character. The lessons are not always fun but necessary and in the Blue Devils case, every 25 years or so. When you put that into perspective it simply means that all programs pay their due on occasion but Duke rarely does.
This Duke team is getting closer to undrstanding roles and the work it takes to simply win. And at some point, they will start to round the learning curve and win by simply being who they are and playing to their strengths.
As for Jalen Johnson's departure? What's done is done. Wish him the best but also recognize that the guys who will be back next season can now learn one another even more. And that will pay off more handsomely in the future.