After watching Duke's crushing loss to Mercer, the second time in the last three years Duke lost their first NCAA Tournament game, it was hard not to wonder what has gone wrong with the Duke Basketball program in the recent years. While one game does not define a season, the two early tournament losses showed the flaws that existed throughout the seasons. It is easy to place the blame on the defense and I believe it is the key to their struggles, but I hope to dig deeper into the problem that has plagued Duke since their National Championship run.
As a young writer, my knowledge of Duke Basketball does not go as far back as many of my readers. I grew up a Duke fan, as my grandparents are alumni of the school, but I truly fell in love with Duke during the 2009-10 basketball season. That year, a Duke team lead by a starting five of three seniors and two juniors won Coach K's fourth National Championship. It was a team that played together, with toughness and leadership. While there were stars on the team, it was easy to love a group of players that clearly loved playing together. After truly falling in love with Duke Basketball, I was hopeful for back-to-back National Championships. While Duke would lose three of their five starters from the Championship team, they still retained two of their stars and were bringing in a star freshman, Kyrie Irving. To put it simply, I was excited for Duke's future.
While the 2010-11 season did not go as planned, Duke was able to win enough games to be a one seed, despite missing Irving for most of the season, thanks to senior stars Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Coach K attempted to bring Irving back for the NCAA Tournament run, but the pieces could not mesh fast enough. Duke fell in the Sweet Sixteen to an Arizona team lead by a performance from Derrick Williams that lead him to be picked second in the 2011 NBA Draft. While the season was a disappointment, I believed Irving's injury was the reason for Duke's demise (and still partially do). I was hopeful though, as Duke was bringing in another top freshman, Austin Rivers, to replace Irving, who went first overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. As I was still growing into my love of Duke when Kyrie Irving commit, Austin Rivers was the first top commit that I was able to truly look forward to watching.
Austin Rivers failed to live up to the expectations of many, but he was a player that I loved to watch. His assortment of ball-handling and shooting put me in awe. While there were clear signs of flaws in this Duke team, I could not see them in my youthful state. Duke was able to get through a relatively successful regular season despite the flaws. When Duke fell to Lehigh, I was distraught. I did not understand how a team with so much talent could fall so early in the tournament. Most people placed the blame on Rivers and I was quick to defend him, (I do still believe Rivers got too much of the blame for the season but that is for another day). Without a top rated recruit coming in and my favorite player on the way out, I was prepping myself for failure in the 2012-13 season.
As much as I was too optimistic for the 2011-12 season, I quickly realized I was too pessimistic for the 2012-13 season. While Duke lacked the name recognition of a top rated freshman, the group of seniors Duke had was special. It was never the most talented Duke team, but they fought for every win. Where the 2012 team crumbled after falling into an early hole against Ohio St, the 2013 fought back and was able to beat Ohio St with a great second half run. When Duke fell to Louisville in the Elite Eight, I felt that Duke got everything out of their talent and lost to the best team in the country. The 2013 team was good, but I was already looking forward to a year with Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood.
With the 2013-14 season being my first year as a writer, I was finally able to see the flaws in the young Duke team that I missed in 2012. Instead of blindly assuming Duke would be fine come tournament time, I began to question Duke's ability to win when it mattered. For the first time since my transformation into a hard-core Duke fan, I did not predict them to win my March Madness bracket. While I did not see a loss coming to Mercer, I knew Duke was not a Championship worthy team. It took almost 5 years, but I finally began to learn what it takes to be a successful team, past my clear biases. With Duke winning the Championship during my first year as a true Duke fan, I assumed it would be a yearly occurrence but it is impossible to expect it. Through my years of writing and watching endless games of Duke and college basketball, hopefully I can share a little about what I believe it takes to win a Championship.
Like I mentioned earlier, the easiest thing to point to in Duke's failures is their defense. Since Ken Pomeroy began ranking teams by offensive and defensive ratings starting in 2003, every National Champion has had an offensive and defensive ranking inside of the top 25. Over the last five years, Duke's offensive rating has been in the top ten every year. While the offense has been fairly consistent, the defense has been extremely varied. While the numbers do not always tell the full story, they fairly accurately show the overall strength of the last five Duke teams. In 2010, when Duke won the National Championship, Duke's defense was ranked 8th in KenPom, to go along with their top rated offense. This being by far Duke's best defensive rating over the five year stretch, it is not surprising it was also the most successful. In 2011 and 2013, Duke's defense was ranked 21st and 31st respectively. The 2011 team experienced some bad luck in their early departure while the 2013 team was good, just not good enough to get over the top. As for Duke's two first game departures in 2012 and 2014, Duke's defense was ranked 81st and 115th respectively. While the five years are a pretty small sample size, there appears to be a fairly good correlation between Duke's defense and their overall success.
While it would be easy to blame the defense for Duke's struggles and move on, I hope to dig deeper into the issue. It would be impossible to pick just one thing to explain Duke's poor defense in the two years of their early exits, and even in 2013. In 2014, one could blame the lack of rim protection and the rule changes that hurt Duke's pressure defensive style. In 2013, one could blame Duke's guard lack of perimeter foot speed, especially with Curry playing hurt, and Ryan Kelly's extended injury. In 2012, it could be brought back to Rivers, who lacked hustle and intensity on defense, even though he was not the only one. I give those examples as reasons to say that my theory is not 100% the answer to Duke's struggles, but just one potentially major factor in an ever changing college basketball landscape. The common thread that I have seen with Duke, and many other teams as I have watched college basketball, is experience is a huge factor in defense.
It would be impossible to say teams with experience always play better defense, but it appears to be a general trend. There are notable exceptions, including Anthony Davis' 2012 Kentucky team who won the Championship with a starting five of all underclassmen and a defensive ranked 8th. This season, the top five defenses are Arizona, Florida, Louisville, Ohio St and Virginia. All these teams are still alive in the tournament, besides Ohio St who sports a 129th ranked offense. The common thread exists between these teams, experience and a major focus on the defensive end. While Duke may not need a top five or even top ten defense to win a Championship, because of their consistently highly rated offense, it is achievable with the right players in the system.
So why did I start with a story about my life as a Duke fan? I believe it does a good job of showing what fans want to see and what actually wins Championships. Over the last three years, I was most excited to see the teams with Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker. Both players are tremendous talents, but it is extremely difficult to expect them to lead college teams as they attempt to adjust to the college game themselves. Although the 2013 team did not have the star names that I hoped for, I have quickly realized they were the best team over the last three years. I do not just say that because of their NCAA Tournament run, but because of their overall success throughout the season. The thing that the 2010, 2011 and 2013 teams had that 2012 and 2014 did not, was senior leadership.
While it is easy to say leadership by itself is the key to winning Championships, luck plays a big role in it as well. Had Jabari Parker come to Duke one year earlier and played with Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee, it is very likely he would have played on a much more successful team. That also transfers to recruiting, because Duke does not always get all the recruits that they desire. Saying that, working towards getting more senior leaders in the program lowers the variability and reliance on good luck for Duke to win a Championship.
Both teams in 2012 and 2014 had seniors, but not ones that were in a large enough roles to serve as leaders for the team. I trace this back to recruiting. While it may be exciting to see the big names choose Duke, Coach K has gotten away from what has helped him become such a special coach. Teams that normally relied on seniors are no stuck leaning on underclassmen. It is not a recipe for success. Coach K has gotten away from that recently, as well as many top college basketball coaches, searching for the top rated high school players instead of the ones that are likely to play four years.
Going into next season, Duke has a very similar recipe to the teams that bowed out early in the tournament. They have just one senior, Quinn Cook, and four extremely talented, but inexperienced, freshmen, three of which could end up starting for Duke. Although Duke fans believe there is only one one-and-done in this recruiting class, it is not a guarantee that Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow stay multiple years. I do not say this to say this Duke team is doomed or will lose in the first round. I do it in hopes of lowering expectations. I used to see this team and overlook its youth and just see the talent. While I recognize this team’s talent, its youth could be enough by itself to prevent Duke from being the team that stands above everyone else. Duke could win it all, but it would take a truly special year, like the year that Davis had in his one year at Kentucky.
My hope for the future is that Coach K gets away from his reliance on freshmen and goes back to recruiting more 4 year players. That is not to say he should go away from players who are potentially one and done players, but he needs to find a better mix in his recruiting strategy. It is difficult to say "recruit less talented players," but I say so in hopes that they will be stars down the road. They got off to a great start to the 2015 class on Monday, picking up a commitment from Luke Kennard, a very talented player but one I believe will be at Duke for four years. Hopefully Duke can continue to recruit players like Luke, because although he may not be as exciting as bringing in Jabari Parker, but he may be a better college player by the time he is a senior.