GREENVILLE, S.C. -- For whatever reason, folks keep talking about how splendid they think Duke is these days. That's fine and everything, but shouldn't the Blue Devils look even better courtesy of His Basketball Majesty Mike Krzyzewski leading a squad with eight McDonald's All-Americans?
Yep, and I know what you're saying.
Duke is good. In fact, Duke is very good, and you might even say this collection of Blue Devils remained among the elite of the NCAA Tournament after they overwhelmed Troy on Friday night with a 87-65 victory during their first-round game at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. OK, but the Blue Devils of Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum were supposed to be great. You know, exceptional, special. Something along the lines of those Duke powerhouses of Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, or of Shane Battier, Elton Brand and Corey Magette or of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones.
We haven't seen any of that otherworldly stuff from Duke this season, at least not consistently. If you don't believe me, listen to my exchange with Matt Jones, who lived up to his co-captain billing for the Blue Devils on Friday night by nailing three of their 13 treys that kept Troy's threat of an upset just a fantasy.
So the term "Duke Wins," Matt. What does that mean to you, and how should it apply to your teammates?
"Yeah, Duke Wins are when we play hard, and when we're not only playing hard, but when we're showing passion, and we're making those connecting plays," said Jones, who also was referring to games in which the Blue Devils historically spend 40 minutes duplicating the perfection of their predecessors along the way to dominance. "Usually, when we do those types of things, we're in a good position. Win, lose or draw, coach always tells us that we just leave our hearts out there, and everything else will be fine."
How many "Duke Wins" for you guys this season?
"I don't know," Jones said, pausing while sitting at his locker, before he eased into an awkward smile. "To be honest, I mean, we've had a couple of Duke Wins on the road during ACC play. It's difficult to get them, especially for this team. The few we had came more during the latter part of the season. We haven't always been there yet, and we're still not there to be able to compete and to be the team we want to be. We're really close to where we need to be, but at the same time, we discover something new that we have to do every game."
To translate: Jones was being too kind. These Blue Devils really aren't close to where they need to be, and you can tell by Krzyzewski going with mostly a seven-man rotation of small ball, despite a roster that supposedly was as tall and as deep as any he's had in years. Maybe ever. Even if they overcome their season-long flaws to grab the national championship this season, they won't rank among college basketball's best teams of all time. And spare me the whining about injuries. Every team has them. Granted, the Blue Devils have encountered more than most this season, but that was so January for this locker room and coaching staff that has been healthy for more than a month.
Coach K is now moving just fine (well, fine enough to design X's and O's with his Basketball Hall of Fame brain) after he couldn't coach for four weeks due to back surgery. There also was that epidemic of disabled Duke players, starting with hotshot freshmen Jayson Tatum (sprained foot), Marques Bolden (lower leg) and Harry Giles (knee) missing the start of the season. Later, Chase Jeter had a procedure to correct his herniated disc. Amile Jefferson bruised a bone on his right foot, and Grayson Allen suffered from turf toe one moment and then an ankle problem the next.
I'm sure I missed several other aches and pains for Duke, but that's irrelevant compared to this: Coach K, those Super Frosh, Allen, Jeter. They're all back, and for the most part, they've been together since Krzyzewski returned to the Blue Devils bench in early February for a home game against Pitt.
Since then, Duke has been . . . very good.
Take the Blue Devils' 11-3 record since Coach K's return. After they won that Pitt game, they grabbed four more in a row. They eventually did the unprecedented with four victories in four days to take the ACC tournament championship. All of that sounds wonderful, but here's the rest of the story. Despite a healthy coach, along with a roster that finally is whole, they've haven't looked anything like the team that was crowned No. 1 in the nation before the season by an overwhelming margin. Prior to Friday night, just two of Duke's previous 10 victories during Coach K, Part II, this season were by double digits, and they both were by exactly 10 points against Virginia on the road and North Carolina during the semifinals of the ACC tournament. Yes, the Troy game was a blowout, but it took a while against the poor-shooting (5-for-23 from the three-point line for 22 percent) and sloppy (17 turnovers) champions of the Sun Belt.
Duke was the opposite in this one.
In addition to the Blue Devils shooting over 50 percent from behind the arc for most of the night before settling at 46 percent, they blocked eight shots and contributed to Troy's errant ways with 13 steals.
"In the second half, we started playing defense, and when we start playing defense, our offense is usually better," said Jefferson, Duke's other co-captain, who is a graduate student. His reference was to a stretch after intermission, when Troy pulled to within nine points of the Blue Devils before Jones nailed a three and Allen followed with another, and two minutes later, Duke was up by 18 along the way to that rout.
Jefferson added, "That's something that has to be our mantra. Get stops out there and take Duke Shots."
He forgot to mention "Duke Wins," but courtesy of Coach K's preaching and that of his constant stable of veterans during a given season, the concept of "Duke Wins" is just understood by all Blue Devils players through the years.
These Blue Devils just can't get them.