by Adam Sobsey
The Blue Devils are 7-1 so far, with a handful of impressive wins and one very ugly loss. Actually, seen from the other side, the loss was very attractive: Ohio State's thorough trouncing of Duke, in the Blue Devils' most recent game—a 22-point dissection that was really not in doubt after the first half—saw the Buckeyes play beautiful basketball. They passed the ball with extraordinary precision and generosity, went inside and outside, shot a blistering 59 per cent, handcuffed Seth Curry (seven points) and rendered Duke starters Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly virtually useless. The two combined to play only 34 minutes, take three shots, and score no points.
Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, called "best on ball defender in the country" by no less an authority than Tweeting North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall (ESPN analyst and former Blue Devil Jay Bilas, the only color commentator worth listening to, seconded the vote), was a dervish in the win over Duke. He throttled anyone he guarded, seemed to be all over the floor (17 points, five rebounds, eight assists), and for his efforts was rewarded with a couple of nuggets of stat-padding luck: at one point he banked in a three-pointer, a total misfire that happened to hit the bullseye—he laughed after it went in—and at another, drove the lane, forced a pass that went off the leg of a Duke player (Mason Plumlee, I think), and had the ball bounce right back to him, whereupon he made an easy layup.
But why begin delving into Duke by praising Ohio State and its point guard?
Well, for one thing, it is to get the bad news out of the way first. For another, let's not allow ourselves to make the snap judgment that Duke isn't as good as we might have thought they were (or their No. 4 national ranking suggested) simply because they lost badly. Ohio State is ranked No. 2, higher than Duke, of course, and the game was on the Buckeyes' home floor, with a host of famous former players in attendance, along with Ohioan LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammate Dwyane [sic] Wade. The arena was sold out, pumped up, taunting, bloodthirsty. People love to beat Duke, that Evil Empire of college basketball.
And Ohio State is a really good basketball team, maybe even the best in the country. If the NCAA Tournament commenced today, I think they'd win it. There's no shame in losing to them. The takeaway from the loss is not the loss itself—an early-season stumble that will ultimately have little bearing on Duke's March makeup—but what the loss can teach us, and the Blue Devils themselves, about the direction of the team.
Which brings us back to Aaron Craft, and Duke's lack of a comparable player. Yes, you can win without a true point guard, but it's much, much easier if you have one. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has been equable about his team's composition this season so far, noting that instead of one "true" point guard like Craft (or UNC's Marshall) he has four or five guys who are, you might say, truthiness point guards: not quite floor generals by trade, but able more or less to collaborate on handling the job.
How well, though? Is it possible to keep five guards happy and productive on one team, in a single offensive system? Or must you keep changing the system throughout any given game in order to accommodate the kaleidoscopic reconfigurations every time you make a substitution? If you do that, will it be too disruptive? A Duke team with Austin Rivers handling the ball is much different, with a different offensive agenda, than than the one run by Tyler Thornton or Seth Curry. And are any of Duke's five guards—Quinn Cook, Curry, Dawkins, Rivers and Thornton—capable of shutting down an opposing guard the way that Aaron Craft can?
These are, of course, precisely the sorts of questions that Krzyzewski and his staff are resolving, both in practice and in meetings. The brain trust surely knows, for example, that through eight games Duke ranks 247th in the nation in assists per game. That is to some degree a function of the very personnel they have: Austin Rivers, for example, excels at driving to the basket, and has so far shown an NBA-level ability to beat just about anyone off the dribble. Dawkins and Curry are looking for their shot. Ryan Kelly, too. Duke hasn't got a a single player averaging even three assists per game. (Here, though, is Shane Ryan's well-done Grantland paean to Duke's guards' passing prowess, albeit written before the Blue Devils played Kansas in the final of the Maui Invitational Tournament.)
So it isn't a surprise that there are already rumblings about moving freshman Quinn Cook into the starting lineup. It's almost certainly too early to do this, if it should be done at all, but it did attract notice that Cook played an ample chunk of the second half of the Ohio State game, and in just 14 overall minutes dished out a team-high four assists. Obviously, Krzyzewski was just letting some of his second string get some useful game time in a worsening and finally lost cause—and perhaps he was also hoping to find some improbable spark somewhere deep down the bench: In addition to Cook's helping, freshman Michael Gbinije and sophomore Josh Hairston logged a combined 29 minutes and hit all four of their shots. In any case, surely Krzyzewski was asking himself whether he might be be best served letting Cook stir the pot more often (because the offense is a mess hall, ha ha).
Looking back a little further, the stars are brighter. Duke won the Maui Invitational, where Krzyzewski has never lost a game in 15 tries. He has won the tournament all five times he's taken his team there, and this year the Blue Devils beat, on three straight nights, Tennessee, Michigan and Kansas.
The latter two games were against storied programs from powerhouse conferences, and the win over Kansas was pretty much an instant classic: a sweaty-palmed dogfight with the intensity and even desperation of an Elite Eight matchup—neither team led by more than three points for virtually the entire second half. Tyler Thornton hit a pair of late three pointers to secure the win for Duke, the latter shot a Hail Mary heave with the shot clock expiring—who knows whether that will be the play for which he is always remembered in Duke lore?
The Kansas game, and the Maui tournament as a whole, were an encouraging early test for the Blue Devils, in which they confirmed that they deserved, despite their youth and awkward, guard-heavy build, their No. 6 preseason ranking. That they then advanced to No. 4, thanks largely to rival UNC's loss to UNLV, was perhaps unfortunate: This is still an evolving team, and it may not be clear for a while yet how good they really are. They almost surely aren't one of the country's four best teams, right now.
To some degree, that's because it isn't clear how good Kansas and Michigan really are. This year's Jayhawks are not the top-five Goliath we're accustomed to, year in and year out. They're ranked No. 15, right behind Michigan at No. 14 (although it's worth noting that awesome advanced-stat basketball geek Ken Pomeroy has Kansas at No. 11 and the Wolverines down at No. 37). And Michigan, after beating No. 8 Memphis before losing to Duke, and then vanquishing UCLA in the consolation game, went and lost at unranked Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this past Tuesday. The early season in college basketball, where the better teams are concerned, is never quite about figuring out how good you are; it's about figuring out the means by which you might become the best team you could possibly be by early March. For all any of us know, Kansas will wind up in the top five after all, or even the Final Four.
In any case, we aren't likely to discover much more about how good Duke really is over the next four weeks. The Blue Devils play a pretty good Washington team (but not as good as last year's, which nearly shocked UNC out of the NCAA Tournament) on December 10. It will be a return trip for Duke to Madison Square Garden in New York City, where the team gave Krzyzewski his record-breaking 903rd career win last month. Otherwise, it's all patsies until Jan. 4, when Duke goes to Philadelphia to take on Temple in a de facto road game.
In other words, the Duke men's basketball team, after an early-season crash course that has to be counted an overall success despite the loss to Ohio State, is entering a reading period of its own: a time to bone up on the meager but still edifying material of second rate teams—y'know, the dried tubers that feed a little life and keep you warm in winter.
It's also a time for Krzyzewski to refine his player rotation, in preparation for the grueling spring semester of Atlantic Coast Conference play, culminating in the end-of-year exam that follows in March (and ends, with luck, in April). The first book they'll crack open, after an eight-day layoff, is that of the Colorado State Rams, who horn their way into Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday. Seeya there.