When Coach K’s legacy is finally written – and a good number of chapters have been filed away already – his name will be either right above or right below that of John Wooden’s. That specific pecking order probably depends on how you want to adjust and norm their resumes for very different eras.
Having said that, I think it’s fairly clear that 2013-2014 will go down as K’s least successful season. Okay, his worst. He never really figured out how to put the pieces of this year’s team together, something he normally excels at. He never made a late-season adjustment that triggered a deep NCAA run, another trademark of his remarkable career. On that subject, his late adjustment in 2001 helped overcome the February injury to Carlos Boozer – who actually revamped his footwork during the injury time – and his return spurred Duke to the national title. In 2010, Coach K inserted more of Brian Zoubeck into the lineup late in the year to get offensive rebounds – not to score, but to kick the ball back out for second chance threes. That baffled defenses – also led to a National title.
This year? The late adjustments never worked. The Dukies underachieved, and there’s no particular reason for it, other than they just underachieved.
Consider: The Blue Devils were highly rated coming into the season, featuring super freshman Jabari Parker and highly touted transfer Rodney Hood. Neither player disappointed, and moreover, Duke remained remarkably healthy all season long. Given those two guarantees in October, odds makers would have penciled them in as ACC Champs and a likely Final Four team. Instead, the Devils limp away from the campaign with two embarrassing losses in a row, embarrassing because they were manhandled down the stretch in both contests. They finished with a very pedestrian by their standards 26-9 record, and the unhappy distinction of losing to a number 14 seed in the opening round – in a game played just 30 minutes from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Make no mistake about it, Mercer beat Duke Friday because right now, Mercer is just plain better than Duke. The very thought of that is absurd, and yet, it is true. They were better prepared, better coached, tougher and smarter – especially down the stretch. The Bears might be this year’s Florida Gulf Coast – and in fact beat FGCU last year for their conference regular season title, and this year for their conference tournament title – and thus may beat some other teams along the way and become their own story. But for now, the story is the money Duke and Coach K left on the table. For whatever reason, the 2013-14 Blue Devils just never meshed. A case could be made they peaked at Syracuse, in he most watched regular season game of the season, in a 91-89 overtime loss in early February. They also looked sharp in the regular season finale, a 93-81 win over North Carolina, even as the Heels shot over 59% from the field.
Duke, it seems, was simply better when they simply focused on offense and outscoring the opposition. Their best defense was the pressure that you simply had to score against them every possession to keep up. In games in the 80’s and higher, their only losses were to the Orange, who played a remarkable game in an astonishing atmosphere – and caught some breaks along the way – to win that one – and a very early loss to Kansas. But when Duke was in the 60’s or lower, they were very average at best. They simply were not very good in tense, tight, low scoring clamp down defensive games.
And yet, this is a program built on a reputation of great man to man defense. It’s as if Coach K couldn’t quite figure out whether to jettison Duke’s reputation and just go with an offensive game plan and lineup, or to continue to try and become a good defensive team. The result was they never were a good defensive team, and their offensive firepower was sporadic. They played best when Andre Dawkins, Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook were draining three’s, opening up the lanes for Jarbari Parker and Rodney Hood to penetrate. They seemed to struggle in tight low scoring games where they hoped for a play from defensive minded Tyler Thornton or Josh Hairston. Somehow, they never figured out an identity. I sensed their were differing opinions in the lockeroom on how to divide the minutes – especially between Dawkins and Thornton.
As such, it’s fitting that they were blasted late in the year by two teams with clear identities – Virginia and Mercer. Against Mercer, defensive specialist Thornton gave up the back breaking three with a terrible defensive breakdown, and Dawkins couldn’t throw it in the ocean all game. Such is what happens when a team has not meshed, and is simply not together. Mercer is together, and they are still playing.