Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cautious Pessimism

When I was in 8th grade, Duke had one of the greatest college basketball teams ever. Led by the inside play of Elton Brand and the sharpshooting Trajan Langdon, this team was stacked. They went 16-0 in ACC play, and rolled through the ACC Tournament, beating UNC by 23 in the final. They had only lost one game all year, their 6th game of the year, where they lost to Cincinnati when a buzzer-beater that would have won the game was waved off because it came a split-second too late. There were no expectations of anything less than a championship. Rolling into the NCAA Finals against UConn, this team didn't just look unbeatable, they were unbeatable.

Watching the game, I waited for the run that would ultimately put UConn away. It never came. I watched helplessly as an absolute monster of a team was upset by the Pillsbury Point Guard. As an 8th-grade Duke basketball fan, I was devastated. And most importantly, I vowed never to fully trust a team ever again.

In the eleven years between then and now, I was lucky enough to actually attend Duke. Three out of my four years there, the basketball season followed the same script: great early season play, a #1 ranking, high expectations going into the tournament, and ultimately a loss in a winnable game. While some of my friends had to be put on a suicide watch (thanks for reading, Jeff) after our tourney losses, I walked away incredibly disappointed, but always able to shrug it off after a short decompression period.

So here we are, and Duke is again in a position to make a huge run. The one thing I keep hearing is how "this team is different" from the teams in the past few years that have collapsed in the tournament. I really want to believe this, but the doubts still linger. This article presents five reasons as to why Duke will win it all this year -- basically, the how "this team is different" argument:

5. The Frontcourt is More Athletic and Taller Than in Recent Years
Agreed. Somehow, in the past month, Brian Zoubek has gone from this to this. Lance Thomas is one of the best defenders in the ACC. The Plumlees (or "PlumTree" and "PlumBush" as I will now refer to them) are works-in-progress but solid, especially for bench players. The only problem is that this group, as a whole, is much better defensively than offensively. But if they can just play solid defense, and our shooters are on, they can play with anyone. Which brings me to...

4. The Blue Devils Don't Have to Rely on Making Three-Pointers to Win

Maybe not against Arkansas Pine-Bluff or Cal. But against top-tier competition, they'll need to hit their threes, only because a dry spell doesn't mean they're going to stop shooting them. These guys aren't going to defer their shots if they're not on. Duke will most certainly take 15+ threes per game, regardless of whether the shots are falling or not. Just because Duke's shooters have gone cold doesn't mean Coach K is going to change his game plan. Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler were a combined 2-14 from three against Cal on Sunday. Wide open looks weren't falling. Yet, the shots kept coming. Duke can survive a 2-14 effort against Cal. But 2-14 against a team like Kentucky would most likely spell the end.

3. Duke Possesses Very Experienced Players and Coaches

You know who else possessed very experienced players and coaches? Kansas. Moving on...

2. The Big Three
Yes, Duke has more scoring options this year than in recent years, due to their so called "Big Three" (Scheyer, Singler, Nolan Smith). But again, having lots of scoring options doesn't matter if they're not actually scoring. Against Cal, Smith played well. Singler was okay. And Scheyer was pretty bad. If two of these three have a good game, Duke's in good shape. Anything less is trouble.

1. Duke's Path to the Final Four Is Easiest Remaining of the Top Seeds
Sure, a Sweet 16 game against a Robbie Hummel-less Purdue is a great matchup. And if they win that, Duke is a better team on paper than either Baylor or St. Mary's. But this article talks about why Duke is destined to win the title, not just to go to the Final Four. If Duke does manage to make its way out of their bracket, they would most likely face Kentucky/West Virginia in the Final Four, and then with a win, an equally-tough matchup in the finals. An "easy path" is a valid reason for making the Sweet 16; it is certainly not a valid reason for winning a championship. 

We haven't even taken into account that while Duke has at times looked unbeatable playing at home, they've been a less-than-stellar road team. With the exception of the UVA game, every single Duke away ACC game was either a loss or a close game in the final minutes. With Baylor's campus about a 3.5-hour drive from the games in Houston, you can imagine that the crowd will be less than friendly towards their visitors from Durham if Duke and Baylor match up in the Elite 8. How Duke deals with a likely hostile crowd will be a big factor as to whether or not they can advance to their first Final Four since 2004. 

So what do I think is going to happen? Well, I'm hoping for the best but keeping my expectations down, just in case. I think Duke goes up big on Purdue early in the second half, but lets them crawl back to within a basket or two before ultimately putting them away. Zoubek has another amazingly competent game. Singler is the star. But if I'm wrong, I won't be surprised.


  1. But as an 8th grade fat kid,during that UCONN game, you were happy to see the P.P.G. thrive.

  2. Love the pictures of Brian Zoubek. The first one is my new AIM icon.

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  4. i think you should go into more detail what happened in the great alaskan shootout finals with that team, cincinnati was it?