Will This Year's Duke Basketball Team Add To Coach K's Legacy?

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski took another step into college basketball history yesterday when he won his 1,000th career game against St. John’s. Coach K is already the all-time wins leader and just keeps expanding his lead with this unprecedented milestone.

The question we’re going to ask here today is in the “rain on the parade” category a little bit, and it’s this—can this edition of Duke basketball be the one that will reverse what’s been a modest decline in recent seasons. With this week’s schedule showing road trips to Notre Dame on Wednesday (7:30 PM ET, ESPN2) and Virginia on Saturday (7 PM ET, ESPN) there’s no time for victory parties or historical reflection in Durham.
Coach K has set some almost impossible-to-hit standards, so even just churning out really good teams, as he continues to do, can still short of this program’s expectations, which are defined by championships. Here’s the rundown on Duke’s current droughts…

*They have not won the ACC regular season title outright since 2006, when J.J. Redick was leading the way. Coach K has won ten outright ACC crowns and shared two others in his tenure, and it’s shocking to realize it’s been nearly a decade since they won their league.
*Duke has not won the ACC Tournament since 2011. A less alarming trend, but people in ACC country live to win this event and for the conference’s pre-eminent program—who has won it 13 times under Coach K– to go three straight years without a title—at a time when North Carolina has also been down a bit—raises some eyebrows
*And the stage that college basketball fans care the most about, March Madness, has not been kind to the Dookies since Coach K won his fourth national title back in 2010.  There were a couple modestly respectable runs to the regional weekend in 2011 and 2013, but both ended in decisive losses, to San Diego State and Louisville respectively. More important, there were two stunning first-round exits, to Lehigh in 2012 and Mercer in 2014.
Duke is essentially the New England Patriots of college basketball. There’s no denying their greatness in the big picture and not even any denying their excellence in recent seasons. But the numbers above for Duke are a little bit like considering the Pats haven’t won the Super Bowl in a decade. So what do prospects look like for this year’s Duke team?
The Blue Devils are currently 17-2, with both losses in ACC play. They trail Virginia by two games in the conference, and are one back of Notre Dame. Duke is tied in the loss column with Louisville, Syracuse and Miami. But Duke has quality non-conference wins over Michigan State and at Wisconsin, and consequently are projected as a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi in an updated bracket released today.
Jahlil Okafor, the outstanding 6’11” freshman center has gotten most of the attention and he deserves it. Okafor gives Duke an imposing presence in the middle, something they have often lacked. He’s averaging 19 points/9 rebounds per game, along with 1.5 blocks. He gets help on the glass from Amile Jefferson, a 6’9” junior who gets eight boards a night.

Okafor is just one of three freshmen playing a huge role for this year’s Duke team. Tyus Jones is an important element in the backcourt, leading the team in assists and Justice Winslow is a key wing player and double-digit scorer. The lineup is rounded out with senior Quinn Cook, good for 14 ppg a night and the main three-point shooter.
Normally good inside play has been the key to determining how far Duke will go. They won their 2010 title when Brian Zoubek consistently grabbed 9-10 rebounds a night. That was a case of role player stepping up. The best Duke teams—those that won back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992 had a great college player in Christian Laettner. With Okafor and Jefferson on this year’s team, the Blue Devils would seem to have both a star and a grinder in place.
The problem is, the defense has not always been there, and team rebounding has been up and down, even if Okafor individually has not been. Duke was significantly outrebounded by Michigan State, but won because they shot 54 percent. The Blue Devils shot the lights out in Wisconsin, hitting 65 percent of their shots.
In the recent two-game losing streak in ACC play, Duke first failed to hit their shots against N.C. State, and lost by 12 in spite of Okafor going for 23/12 and Jefferson getting eight rebounds. Duke lost at home to Miami because they allowed 52 percent shooting. In the two games combined, Duke gave up 177 points.
It’s that lack of defensive focus that’s difficult to understand, given the presence of good interior personnel. Duke is 50th in the country in defensive efficiency, a stat that adjusts points allowed for tempo so faster teams aren’t penalized. That’s not terrible, but it’s not the stuff of a great team either. By contrast, the offense ranks 5th.
What this suggests is that Duke will look really good when the shots are falling, but be unable to grind out ugly wins. And you need ugly wins to win conference championships and make Final Four runs in March.
Of course the other side to this is that it’s still January, and this freshman-laden team is still learning to play together defensively. Some of the previous Duke teams that came up short simply didn’t have good talent in the post and that became exposed. This year’s team does, so perhaps it’s just a question of letting Coach K continue to mold this group and see if their defense improves.
There’s no better time to start than this week. You need your defense to win on the road and if Duke is serious about that first outright ACC championship since 2006—or first shared title since 2010—then trips to Notre Dame and Virginia are the place to get it going.