Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nine. Zero. Three.

Whatever you may think of Duke, whatever opinion you may have of Coach K, you can't help but be impressed with his accomplishment last night, overtaking his friend and mentor for the NCAA's all-time wins record in Division 1. Lots of people out there (including many that I know) hate Duke and Coach K for their perceived snobbery, because they "get all the calls," because their fans are annoying, because they're the "University of New Jersey at Durham," or just because they win. And that's fine. Hate all you want. But you should try to at least acknowledge and respect the difficulty of winning those 903 games (including four national championships over a span of two decades) across multiple eras and with teams that often barely resembled one another.

It was fitting (and obviously preordained by the Worldwide Leader) that K broke the record with Bobby Knight in attendance. Knight, a tremendous coach himself who also obviously won a lot over a long period of time, would probably still be stalking a sideline today if he had been a little more willing to make some adjustments in how he approached the game. Among other things, I don't think Knight ever truly embraced the three-point shot, and he never believed in having specific plays to run through star players, and that may have contributed to his Indiana teams slipping from "consistently great" to "consistently good"* and to his inability to ever truly get over the hump in what is admittedly basketball purgatory, or just regular purgatory, at Texas Tech.

*Who did Knight's last Indiana team lose to in the first round of the NCAA tournament? If you answered "Pepperdine Waves," you win! Pour yourself a beer.

K, meanwhile, has won 20 games in 26 of the 29 seasons since his first major recruiting class (Dawkins, Alarie, Bilas, Henderson) showed up in the fall of 1982, 25 games 20 times, and 30 games or more 12 different times, with the first and latest being 25 years apart. He started winning before the NCAA adopted the three-point line, and since then Duke has been probably the most notable three-point shooting team (although as they have lived by the three, so they have often died by the three). He's won with star-studded teams (the 2001 title team featured 4 of the top 11 All-America vote-getters, 3 of whom have gone on to productive NBA careers, with the 4th of course being Jay Williams - cut to me shaking my head sadly) and with teams that had no one better than a journeyman or two on them (2010 - Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler). And so on.

The team that won last night is definitely still searching for an identity. They don't seem to have that multi-dimensional forward (a la Singler, Shane Battier, Roshown McLeod, Grant Hill, Danny Ferry, etc.) who can capably play three positions and score in a variety of ways. Those guys always seem to bump Duke from "possible Sweet 16 but no more" to "Final Four-caliber if they don't trip up somewhere along the way." Ryan Kelly is obviously not enough of a driving threat to be that guy,** and neither of the freshmen candidates for that spot (Michael Gbinije and Kyle Murphy) are earning real playing time yet. They also don't have a go-to guy, and last night highlighted how potentially frustrating Austin Rivers can be. I know he's good, and he certainly knows he's good, but he's forcing things a lot. I understand that he's the only player on the roster who has proven at any level that he can create his own shot, but he has not settled into a rhythm with his teammates yet.

**I would like to see K experiment occasionally with a lineup that includes Kelly and both Plumlees (assuming Mason could guard the other team's small forward); that lineup would have three huge shot-blockers and rebounders, and Kelly of course can step outside on offense and shoot (if anything, he needs to shoot more - he was 3-for-3 from the floor last night while passing up at least that many more open looks).

My hope, actually, more so than Rivers turning into the lethal scoring machine he's expected to be, is for Andre Dawkins to take the reins. Everyone knows he can and will shoot anytime he's got a sliver of space (certainly everyone who watched last night's game), but he also possesses decent athleticism, and as Shane Ryan noted on Grantland, he plays with a discernible edge. Perhaps he can turn into Nolan Smith 2.0? Don't forget that Nolan often looked a lot more lost as a freshman and sophomore than Dawkins did. Regardless, someone needs to step up and be The Guy, and I'm rooting for Dawkins.

The most telling sign that even K and his staff (which seems to grow every year - Collins, Wojo, Nate James, Carrawell, Capel, and his son-in-law all on the bench) haven't figured out this team yet is that through these first three games only Seth Curry is averaging 30 minutes a game (and he's right on the nose). K's best players tend to play around 35 minutes per game (sometimes to their detriment in March), and that's an indicator that he doesn't really know who his best guys are yet. Fortunately for the Blue Devils last night, Michigan State has even less of an identity this early in the season.*** If Duke had been playing a typical Spartans team, the decision to go to the stall game with eight minutes to go would have probably been catastrophic, instead of merely hair-raising and annoying as usual.****

***That Michigan State is young an inexperienced was clearly evident in the second half of the Carrier Classic, when they felt compelled to continue challenging John Henson (only the best defender in the country) on several possessions where they needed to score to get back in the game. Tom Izzo's teams typically don't make those mental mistakes.

****Easily my least favorite thing about Coach K's style is how early he will go to the stall offense to try and burn clock in the second half. Sure, he's keeping the ball from the other team, but more often than not, the Blue Devils lose any sort of rhythm, and too often comebacks ensue. It's particularly frustrating when they don't have a guy who can just go and create an easy opportunity for himself or a teammate after standing around for 20-25 seconds, which, at the moment, they don't. Thus was Michigan State, despite a complete inability to score in the paint last night, able to close the gap from 19 points to 5 and make things more interesting than they needed to be.

We still don't know exactly where this season will head now that the record is K's alone, but until they sort out their go-to guy issues, they look like a "2nd place in the ACC, win the ACC tournament because Roy Williams is terrible at in-game adjustments, get a 2-seed, lose in the Sweet 16 to a sleeper 6 seed" kind of team. Still, K has proven that he can make critical adjustments (such as giving Big Z a bigger role on the way to the 2010 title) in order to elevate the team. And really, after beginning the season by passing Bobby Knight for most wins, what would be a better way to end it than tying John Wooden (and breaking a tie with Dean Smith) for most Final Fours?