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What’s wrong with Duke?: Why the consensus preseason No. 1 team is spiraling

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Five weeks ago, fresh off of a win in the Jimmy V Classic in which then-No. 5 Duke knocked off Florida and was on the verge of getting Harry Giles, the third of the program’s three elite and injured freshmen, back from his layoff, the Blue Devils looked the part of a team on the verge of making a run at winning Mike Krzyzewski’s sixth national title.

Fast forward to Monday night, and the team is a total mess despite the fact that Blue Devils have every one of their key players available.

Duke lost for the third time in their last four games and for the fourth in in seven ACC games when, on Monday night, they blew a number of second half leads and fell to N.C. State at home for the first time since 1995. Coach K is still recovering from surgery on his back and has not been on the sidelines for the last five games. Grayson Allen has looked like a shell of himself for most of the season, particularly over the course of the last month, since his third tripping incident of 2016 has turned him into a media sensation that college basketball has never before seen. Giles isn’t anywhere near the player that he was before his knee surgeries, and it’s looking less and less likely that we’ll see him get close that level this year. Jayson Tatum isn’t playing like a top five pick. Marques Bolden looks nothing like a lottery pick. Luke Kennard was sensational early in the season but is being pushed back into a complimentary role.

All of this coming from a team that, on paper, should be as talented as anyone we’ve seen in recent history.

How has it gone so wrong for Duke?


PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 28: Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after losing 76-62 to the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Petersen Events Center on February 28, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Luke Kennard (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

1. The Luke Kennard conundrum: Right now, Luke Kennard is the guy playing the best for Duke, and he’s the only one on the team that seems to realize it. This is the crux of the issue for Duke.

By almost any measure that you use, Kennard has been the star of this team. He’s their leading scorer. He has, by far, the highest offensive rating on the team, according to KenPom.com. He’s by far their best three-point shooter. The only guy that’s shooting better from inside the arc is Amile Jefferson. What he’s doing this season isn’t all that different from what Grayson Allen did last season, when he was a second-team all-american. The way Kennard’s been playing, he’s the one that should have the offense built around him.

“They need to make Kennard the focal point,” said a person who has scouted the Blue Devils this season.

Only, that’s not how it has gone. Since the Dec. 19th game against Tennessee State, when things started to spiral for Duke, Kennard has averaged 11.2 shots per game, down from 13.5 in the first 11 games of the season. During that same stretch, Tatum has averaged 13.6 shots while getting more shots than Kennard in eight of the nine games. If you like advanced stats, the numbers are similarly glaring: Tatum took an average of 28.4 percent of the shots while he was on the floor during those nine games. Kennard checked in at 21.9 percent. On the season, Kennard’s usage rate is 22.0. Tatum’s is 27.8.

Kennard has his flaws, and Tatum is inarguably a better NBA prospect, and this has created an issue because Tatum is a ball-stopper. He’s terrific when he’s allowed to operate in isolation, but he lacks feel. He doesn’t read when and where help is coming from. He doesn’t make his teammates better. He can’t create shots for anyone else. He doesn’t seem to have an understanding of when he should try to takeover and when it’s time to keep the offense moving. It’s not all that different from what Brandon Ingram did last season, but this Duke team and that Duke team have very different supporting casts. They needed Ingram to take over in stretches last season – more on Ingram in a second – and he did, while still managing to shoot less than Tatum is this season.

That leads me into the next point …

2. … that Duke lacks an identity: Whose team is this? Who is the go-to guy? Who is the player that offense will run through? Who do they build around?

It should be Grayson Allen, right? He was the Preseason National Player of the Year. He is the guy that averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 boards and 3.5 assists last season. He’s the guy that returned to Duke for his junior season in part because he wanted to leave a legacy at the program; no one has won two national titles at Duke since Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley. But given his propensity for tripping people, the Laettner legacy that Allen has followed has been very different than what he was hoping for, and the scrutiny those incidents brought upon him has turned Allen into a guy that looks nothing like the player we saw last season.

No one has filled that void in his absence.

“They have too many guys who think it’s their team,” one NBA front office member said. “No identity.”

Which brings me back to Kennard.

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 14: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Duke Blue Devils dribbles the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on January 14, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

For the Blue Devils to reach their ceiling, he cannot be their best player. I don’t say that to take away from his ability. He is quite clearly capable of being their best player; he’s been doing it for two months.

I say that because, quite simply, Allen and Tatum should be better than him. They are more talented. But as of today, we’re now more than halfway through the season and those two just haven’t been good enough.

It really is that simple.

“And that’s part of the problem,” a coach who has game-planned for Duke said, adding that this where injuries have really taken their toll.

You see, Duke has never really had a chance to gel. If you include Coach K into the equation, they’ve essentially played one game where they had all of their preferred starters available and one of the greatest to ever do it on the sideline. You’ve heard this a thousand times by now, but teams figure out their pecking order, their rotation and the hierarchy of who gets shots and when they get them during games in November and December. Duke did just that, and then they had a wrench thrown into the gears when Tatum returned, when Bolden returned and when Giles returned, not to mention when Allen finally got healthy.

And now this is the situation they face: Kennard has gotten used to being ‘the man’ this season, Allen spent all of last season as ‘the man’ while Tatum – and, to a lesser extent, Giles and Bolden – entered the program with the expectation of being ‘the man’.

Something has to give. Someone has to accept a role.

And, over the course of the last month, that just hasn’t happened the way that it needs to.

3. That whole “Duke doesn’t have a point guard” story line? It’s an issue: Back to Allen, part of the reason that he is struggling is that he is being asked to play out of position. He’s not a point guard, but he’s the best point guard that Duke currently has on their roster.

There is a difference between a play maker and a point guard, which is similar to the difference between playing the point and being a point. Allen is a playmaker. He’s a better passer than he gets credit for. He can get into the paint, draw a defense and find an open man. But he’s an attack-minded player. He wants to be aggressive. That’s when he’s at his best, and that’s what his natural instinct is. He’s being asked to facilitate, and it has become clear that this is not working as well as Duke would have hoped.

Frank Jackson isn’t quite ready to play a facilitatory role, either.

“They just don’t have that guy,” said a coach who has faced Duke this season.

What they do have, however, is nine McDonald’s All-Americans, and in theory, that should be good enough. They were fine offensively last season when they had the same point guard concerns, but that’s because there was a hierarchy that was quite clear. Everyone knew that Allen was the star, Brandon Ingram was the next option and Kennard was the guy that took over if defenses focused on those two.

That’s not the case this year.

“They don’t know where they’re getting shots from because they haven’t been a collective unit long enough,” the coach said.

GREENSBORO, NC - DECEMBER 21: Luke Kennard #5 and Harry Giles #1 of the Duke Blue Devils react during their game against the Elon Phoenix at the Greensboro Coliseum on December 21, 2016 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Duke won 72-61. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Harry Giles (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)

4. Does this group even like playing with each other?: Do they like each other, period?

What made Duke’s second half performance on Saturday afternoon so promising, what made so many people – myself included – think that it could end up being the turning point in their season, is that, for the first time in a long time, Duke actually looked like they were having fun playing basketball.

That’s because they were, sources connected to the program said.

And the result was that second half, the best defensive performance the Blue Devils have had since they won the 2015 national title.

Defense has been a constant concern for the Blue Devils since Coach K has fully embraced the one-and-done method of chasing titles, and this season is no different. They’ve been lit up in ball-screens. They’ve been getting beaten one-on-one. They looked incapable of keeping anyone out of the lane in their four conference losses, the most recent of which featured a 32-point, six-assist outburst by Dennis Smith Jr. But they’ve also shown flashes of being really, really good on that end of the floor.

Where does the inconsistency come from?

Part of it is youth. For example, it’s hard to expect freshmen big men to enter college with a complete understanding of what they have to do defensively. In high school, they stand in front of the rim and block shots. In college, Giles and Bolden are being asked to hedge hard on ball-screens, to switch onto smaller defenders, to defend big men that can make jumpers, to be in the right place in help-side. There’s a lot more on their plate, and they’re barely a month into their playing career after getting healthy. They are improving.

But there’s more to it than that.

For all the talk about athleticism and length and defensive tools, the single-most important skill when it comes to being a good individual defender is effort. From a team perspective, communication may be the most important part of putting together a well-oiled defense. As cliché as it sounds, teams that don’t like playing with each other – that don’t make the extra effort to take a charge, that don’t give their all trying to stop their man, that reach for a steal instead of moving their feet to plug a driving lane, that don’t talk to their teammates on screens or switches or rotations – aren’t very good on the defensive end of the floor.

Ask yourself this: Is it a coincidence that Duke team’s best defensive half came when they were actually enjoying each other’s presence on the court?


DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 21: Acting head coach Jeff Capel of the Duke Blue Devils watches his team l during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Acting head coach Jeff Capel (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The question that needs to be asked now is whether or not this team can actually turn this thing around, and I don’t know if they can.

Getting Coach K back should make a difference, but will it be enough for Duke to actually be able to make a run in the tournament in March?

In 2014, the answer to that question was yes. Kentucky entered the year with more hype than any team in John Calipari’s tenure with the Wildcats, and they promptly lost to Michigan State in the Champions Classic. Then they lost Baylor. And North Carolina. And Arkansas. Before you knew it, those Wildcats were finishing off a 22-9 regular season where they went 12-6 in the SEC and finished a full six games behind Florida for the conference regular season title.

But that group was able to shake off whatever ailed them in March. They went to the SEC tournament final, where they lost to No. 1 Florida by a point. They got slotted in a nightmare region in the NCAA tournament, then proceeded to beat No. 1 seed and undefeated Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin – all of whom were top ten teams in the polls entering the tournament – to get to the national title game.

They lost to UConn in the finals.

That UConn team was led by Shabazz Napier, who went through a similarly catastrophic season two years earlier. In 2011-12, UConn landed a commitment from Andre Drummond, the best prospect in the Class of 2011, on August 26th, six weeks before practices were scheduled to start. That vaulted the Huskies, who were coming off of a national title the previous April, to the top of every preseason poll, even beating out North Carolina and Kentucky – who would prove to be far and away the two best teams in the country that year – for a couple of votes for No. 1.

But that team, which was as talented as any of their counterparts, would lose to Central Florida in the Bahamas. Then they lost to Seton Hall and Rutgers in back-to-back games early on in Big East play. There was one stretch during the season where they lost nine out of 12 before finishing 8-10 in the Big East and landing a No. 8 seed in the tournament.

Unlike Kentucky, UConn did not have a bonding moment prior to the Big Dance. They were bounced by Iowa State in the first round. In the locker room after the game, Napier punched a locker in frustration in front of members of the media as he watched his teammates laugh their way to the end of the season.

Duke’s season appears destined to follow one of those two paths.

In a world where Giles is back to 100 percent, Allen’s head is in the game and Tatum understands that Kennard is the team’s best player right now, Duke clearly has the talent to do what Kentucky did.

That team can win a national title.

But are we actually going to see that team at any point the rest of this season?

College Basketball Power Rankings: Kentucky drops out of the Top 25

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I’m not sure that this Kentucky season can be considered a worst-case scenario.

Kentucky fans have seen a worst-case scenario.

That came during the 2012-13 season, when a Wildcat team that was trending towards the back end of the top 25 lost their star center Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL in February, dooming them to the NIT, where they lost in the first round to Robert Morris.

That is a worst-case scenario, and barring something totally unforeseen, this Kentucky team is not going to turn into that Kentucky team.

This group looks much more like the team we saw the following year, the one that featured Julius Randle, James Young, the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed with a 24-10 record before making a run to the national title game. That team had plenty of talent, but they never quite gelled until March.

This year’s team does not have that same level of talent, but they are running into some of the same problems.

The question is whether or not this group actually has the potential to come together and make a run like that 2014 team.

RELATED: Kentucky just is not that good

And frankly, I still think they do. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has emerged as a go-to guy while Kevin Knox had seemingly regained his confidence before a poor performance in the home loss to Florida. Quade Green has returned to the lineup, as has Jarred Vanderbilt, who might be the key to unlock the potential on this roster.

In an ideal world, Kentucky’s length and athleticism allows them to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams while the playmaking of Vanderbilt and Green makes their offense fluid enough that they overcome some of their shooting issues. I can still tell myself a story where Kentucky finds a way to put it all together for six straight games in March.

But that’s not who they are right now.

And with each passing game, I grow less and less confident that the elite will ever come out of this group.

Kentucky is not a top 25 basketball team right now. They are nowhere near one of the favorites to win a national title right now. And, at this point, Kentucky fans would do well to adjust their expectations, as a trip out of the Sweet 16 should be considered a success.

Here is the full top 25.

1. Villanova, 18-1 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Purdue, 19-2 (2)
3. Virginia, 18-1 (5)
4. Kansas, 16-3 (13)
5. Michigan State, 17-3 (7)
6. Duke, 17-2 (10)
7. West Virginia, 16-3 (4)
8. Arizona, 16-4 (8)
9. Xavier, 18-3 (11)
10. Oklahoma, 14-4 (6)
11. North Carolina, 16-4 (17)
12. Texas Tech, 15-4 (3)
13. Cincinnati, 17-2 (19)
14. Ohio State, 17-4 (22)
15. Auburn, 17-2 (18)
16. Tennessee, 13-5 (23)
17. Wichita State, 15-4 (9)
18. Clemson, 16-3 (20)
19. Saint Mary’s, 19-2 (NR)
20. Gonzaga, 17-4 (16)
21. Nevada, 18-3 (NR)
22. Florida, 14-5 (NR)
23. Rhode Island, 15-3 (NR)
24. Arizona State, 15-4 (14)
25. TCU, 14-5 (25)

DROPPED OUT: No. 12 Seton Hall, No. 15 Kentucky, No. 21 Michigan, No. 24 Miami

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 19 Saint Mary’s, No. 21 Nevada, No. 22 Florida, No. 23 Rhode Island

VIDEO: Northern Colorado wins game with halfcourt buzzer beater

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Northern Colorado knocked off North Dakota on Saturday night thanks to a half court buzzer-beating three from Andre Spight.

Spight is averaging 20.3 points on the season and finished with 34 points and six assists in the 94-91 win.

Clemson’s Grantham tears ACL

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The news on Donte Grantham’s knee was not good.

No. 20 Clemson announced on Sunday morning that Grantham, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, would miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL in a win over Notre Dame on Saturday.

“I’m disappointed that Donte’s career at Clemson had to end this way,” head coach Brad Brownell said. “He was putting together a terrific season statistically, but he really helps this team is so many ways. He’s been a pleasure to coach and it has been fun to watch him mature and grow into the leader of our program.”

Grantham was averaging 14.2 points and 7.1 boards this year.

The Tigers are 16-3 on the season and in line to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.

VIDEO: West Virginia honored Andrew Jones before game vs. Texas

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The West Virginia basketball team donned burnt orange ‘Big 12 Strong’ warmup shirts with the No. 1 on the back in honor of Texas point guard Andrew Jones.

Jones was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this month.

Texas Tech also honored Jones before a game this week, and Texas has raised more than $100,000 for his medical expenses.

Saturday College Basketball Recap: No. 7 Wichita State, No. 8 Texas Tech lose

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

It’s hard to argue with the performance that J.P. Macura had on Saturday. No. 11 Xavier went into Newark and knocked off No. 19 Seton Hall, 73-64, behind 27 points, five boards and three assists from Macura.

This win was particularly important for Xavier, who remain just a game out of first place in the Big East and in great position to make a run at getting a top three seed, which would mean they likely won’t have to play Villanova until the Big East title game. The loss is the second in a row for Seton Hall and the their third loss in four games.

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards finished with 22 points, eight assists, two steals and no turnovers as the No. 3 Boilermakers blew out Iowa on the road.
  • MALIK NEWMAN, Kansas: Newman finished with 24 points and seven boards, including a personal 7-0 run with three minutes left to help No. 10 Kansas remain in sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a 70-67 win over Baylor.
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: Brown finished with 28 points as Auburn erased a 14-point halftime deficit to knock off Georgia 79-65 and remain within a game of first-place in the SEC.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: In a win over No. 24 Kansas State, TCU’s second-straight win over a ranked team, Wade went for 20 pints, six boards, six assists, two blocks and two steals.

TEAM OF THE DAY

Houston landed themselves their first marquee win of the season as they pounded No. 7 Wichita State in Houston, 73-59. Rob Gray led the way with 24 points and four assists, putting the Cougars in a position where earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is feasible. There is still plenty of work left to do, but this is the start they needed.

The bigger question mark, however, is Wichita State, who also lost at home to SMU this week. The Shockers are nowhere near as good as many expected them to be. Their offense isn’t good enough to make up for the fact that they aren’t guarding anyone.

GAME OF THE DAY

Trae Young went for 48 points, 34 of which came after halftime as the Sooners erased a 19-point deficit, but thanks to a Kendall Smith three at the end of regulation, this game went into overtime. Young had shots at the buzzer in regulation and in overtime to win the game and missed both, as the Pokes escaped with an 83-81 win.

Young needed 39 shots to get those 48 points. We went through whether or not that is too many shots for him here.

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Iowa State, who can’t guard anyone and is probably the worst team in the Big 12 this season, knocked off No. 8 Texas Tech, 70-52. The Red Raiders have now lost three of their last four games – all of which came on the road – after winning at Kansas. Texas Tech is also now just 1-3 in the four games since Zach Smith broke his foot, but they also beat Baylor by 24 points and won at Kansas when Smith played 10 total minutes.

So you explain Texas Tech to me. Because I don’t get it.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

The Florida Gators moved into sole possession of first place in the SEC thanks to a 66-64 win at No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday. It was hardly a pretty game – Florida shot 33 percent from the floor and 6-for-30 from three – but the Gators were able to hang on thanks to a questionable no-call in the final seconds.

No. 20 Clemson held on to beat Notre Dame at home on Saturday, 67-58, but missing out on a commitment from Zion Williamson wasn’t the only bad news of the day. Star forward Donte Grantham went down with a knee injury midway through the second half. He averages 14.3 points and 7.1 boards. Losing him would be disastrous for the Tigers.

No. 14 Arizona had to rally down the stretch, but the Wildcats did. Trailing by as many as 11 points late in the second half at Stanford, the Wildcats survived as Dorian Pickens missed a three at the buzzer. The win puts Arizona all alone in first place in the Pac-12.

Jalen Brunson scored 23 points and Donte DiVincenzo added 17 points off the bench as No. 1 Villanova blew out UConn in Hartford, 81-61.

No. 13 Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s both won, meaning that the Gaels still hold a one game lead over the Zags in the WCC. Nevada knocked off Boise State, giving the Wolf Pack a two-game lead in the Mountain West.

At this point, Pitt barely counts as ACC competition. But they are and No. 5 Duke beat them 81-54 tonight.

Jevon Carter went for 22 points and eight assists as No. 6 West Virginia knocked off Texas, 86-51. The game was closer than the final score indicates, as the Mountaineers pulled away late.

The star of the day for No. 12 Cincinnati was Gary Clark, who finished with 14 points, 14 boards, two assists, two steals and two blocks, in an 86-60 win over East Carolina.

Luke Maye went for 17 points and 11 boards to lead four players in double figures as No. 15 North Carolina held on to beat Josh Pastner and Georgia Tech, 80-66.

It ended up not being much of a game when the Big Ten invaded Madison Square Garden as No. 22 Ohio State put a beating on Minnesota, 67-49. Minnesota lost Jordan Murphy to an ankle injury in the game as well.