Talented Duke Blue Devils has questions

Talented Duke Blue Devils has questions

January 10th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Three days before the Duke Blue Devils struggled to defeat Georgia Tech 81-74 in Philips Arena, the Yellow Jackets were pummeled 73-48 by Alabama inside the same Atlanta facility.

Perhaps that's why Dookies coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his young team after Saturday's victory, "I know people think of Duke as we've got these chiseled guys, and they're all All-Americans right away. That just doesn't happen. You have to gain your experience."

Actually, they mostly come to Duke as prep All-Americans, then mature into collegiate all-stars.

And Coach K's 32nd season at the elite private university isn't much different in that regard than most of those that have come before it. Guard Austin Rivers -- the son of Boston Celtics coach and former Atlanta Hawks point guard Doc Rivers -- is Duke's latest freshman phenom, averaging 15 points a game, good for tops on his team and 11th in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But despite the No. 8 Blue Devils' 13-2 overall record (1-0 in the ACC) heading into Thursday night's visit from No. 16 Virginia, there have been two fairly big hiccups.

The first occurred at Ohio State on Nov. 29 after Duke had won the Maui Invitational six days earlier, flown home to Durham, N.C., and then went on to Ohio.

At least partly due to jet lag, the Buckeyes busted the Blue Devils, 85-63.

It's what happened last Wednesday at Temple that seemed to concern the Blue Devils more, however, as they fell to the Owls, 78-73.

"Against Temple we kind of splintered when the heat came," said Duke forward Ryan Kelly, the tourney MVP in Maui after scoring 17 points in each of the Devils' three wins.

"All that mattered [against Georgia Tech] was winning. We need to have that kind of attitude."

It's not that they've never had that attitude this season. Duke has beaten Kansas, Michigan State, Washington, Michigan, Tennessee and Belmont while playing the nation's second toughest schedule.

But Krzyzewski also said after the Tech win -- in which Duke blew most of an early 18-point lead before watching Kelly swish eight straight free throws late (he was 14-of-14 in the game) -- "We're not that good. We're still evolving. I think we're still in a constant search for who we are individually."

Yet who they are right now is good enough for most who play against them, beginning with Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins, whose team was flattened 110-70 by Duke just a few days after WMU had shellacked capable Oakland.

"They just keep coming at you in waves," Hawkins said. "They're in superior condition. They've got great athletes. It's kind of like going into a heavyweight bout and you may get in a punch or two in the early rounds, but as the fight wears on they just keep wearing you out with those body shots. When you let your guard down, they don't score. They score 10 ... they score 12 ... they score 14. They're definitely a top-five team."

They have the top coach in the history of Division I men's basketball in total victories, Coach K having won 913 games to go with his four NCAA titles, which trails only the late UCLA coach John Wooden's 10.

And he can certainly place one of the top five tallest front lines in the land if he places 6-foot-10 brothers Miles and Mason Plumlee on the court at the same time he's playing the 6-11 Kelly.

"But we're a little short at some spots," said Krzyzewski, pointing to his top four guards, of whom Rivers is the tallest at 6-4. "We've got to get a little more aggressive on the perimeter."

To underscore that point, the Blue Devils are an uncharacteristic last in the ACC in field-goal defense and next-to-last in the 12-team league in scoring defense.

Still, in a weakened ACC, the Blue Devils figure no worse than second to North Carolina.

Said Coach K: "I'd rather be 15-0 and start five seniors. But to be 13-2 is really good right now."

Especially when you're still evolving and searching for who you are individually while being taught by the winningest coach in the history of the game.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.