Much to Mike Krzyzewski’s consternation, the process of putting together this year’s Duke basketball team to help it play at its best is taking far longer than the coach would prefer.
The staff had a week between losing 74-67 at Virginia Tech on Jan. 12 and Tuesday night’s loss at Pittsburgh.
Poor play early against the Hokies left Duke in a double-digit hole it actually climbed out of before faltering late in that loss.
Pittsburgh proceeded to score the game’s first eight points against Duke, setting the tone for yet another game the Blue Devils (5-4, 3-2 ACC) never gained control of as they suffered a 79-73 loss.
Needing to call a timeout less than two minutes into the game to settle his team left Krzyzewski bewildered and angry.
“The most disappointing thing for me was our start,” Krzyzewski said in his postgame Zoom news conference with reporters. “We have practiced so hard and tried different things and for me to have to call a timeout after two minutes is not acceptable. To me, that was the most disappointing thing, is how we started.”
Each season, Duke’s staff always has to change plans to account for massive roster turnover and injuries that occur along the way. That’s all to be expected. And, normally, Duke has such a talent gap over its opposition it can collect wins while working through those kinks.
That’s not going the case this season.
Yes, the Blue Devils brought in another highly-ranked freshman class. But the only member of that group who appears NBA-ready is 6-9 freshman Jalen Johnson, who has battled a foot injury for the last month.
Johnson showed his various talents in the loss to Pittsburgh, with 24 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and four blocked shots while playing 33 turnover-free minutes.
As Krzyzewski and his staff work to mold the Blue Devils into a team that’s far better in March than it is now, Johnson must be a key factor.
Or, at least Krzyzewski hopes so. Because that’s been another problem with this Duke team — consistent play.
Johnson produced 19 points and 19 rebounds Duke’s season-opening win over Coppin State in November but followed that with only 11 points and four rebounds against Michigan State.
Sophomore forward Wendell Moore suffered through a four-game stretch where he tallied six total points. He broke out with 25 points in a win over Boston College on Jan. 6, only to score four points in each of Duke’s next two games.
He scored 15 against Pittsburgh on Tuesday night so the pendulum is swinging back toward the good — for now.
Even Matthew Hurt, the sophomore who leads the ACC in scoring, still has his lackluster moments. Hurt finished with 13 points and six rebounds against Pitt, but Krzyzewski still called his first half of that game “horrible.”
That up-and-down play from so many key players makes it difficult for the staff to set roles and form a rotation to help manage the ebb and flow of a game.
In each of his postgame statements after the losses at Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh, Krzyzewski spoke with admiration, and more than a hint of jealousy, about how those teams’ players knew their roles and what they needed to do to win.
Duke, of course, still has a chance to get there. The Blue Devils have pieces that could make them a very good team, when you consider Johnson and Hurt should both be first-round NBA draft picks, and freshman guards Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward look like strong scorers.
But, as the late Yogi Berra famously said, it’s getting late early.
Selection Sunday is now less than two months away. Duke is out of the top 25, one game above the .500 mark and winless in games against ranked teams this season. The Blue Devils aren’t an NCAA Tournament-worthy team at this point.
Maybe the zone defense Krzyzewski installed and the Blue Devils used primarily at Pittsburgh will make a difference. While Krzyzewski doesn’t plan for that to be its main defense, it will be a new part of things going forward in the search for answers.
Meanwhile, the ACC grind continues. Duke heads to Louisville on Saturday before facing Clemson and Georgia Tech at home the following week.
Krzyzewski will ask a seemingly simple thing from his team, the same thing he asked the players to display in response to its weak start at Pitt.
“They’ve got to get tougher,” he said. “This is such a young team and it’s as young of a team as we’ve had for a long time. We can’t afford to be down, we have to respond.”