Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My Take on Duke

Since Duke’s 1st round loss last Friday, many have been quick to jump on the bandwagon with their opinions of why Duke is going down the drain. Suffice to say, I can’t believe Duke President Richard Broahdhead let alone Coach K is pacing his wood paneled office and sweating from his forehead, wondering how he's going to fix the whole damn thing over the summer. Check a sports website this week, and along with the kenpom statistics being used to predict the Sweet 16 games, you’ll find an article breaking down everything that’s wrong with the Duke program. Apparently, even the ivy that adorns the Duke campus’s gothic buildings has been wilting since late Friday evening. 60 Minutes has sent one of their octogenarians on a chartered plane to check out this latest Duke scandal. And this time, the parents being interviewed will be even angrier. You do not want to fuck with the parents of a Duke student.

All that being said, I’m going to jump right on to the bandwagon. It may not stop for me, but I’ve been working on my fitness lately and I think I might be able to catch it when it swings by my neck of the woods. Why should I disagree with my favourite national columnists?

If we’re going to point out what’s wrong with the Duke program, let’s do it in a sophisticated manner, with easy to read numbered points. I’m not yet a good enough writer to put together a coherent 2,000 word column, and you readers are probably even less sophisticated than I am, so I’ll make life easy for everyone involved.

1. Recruiting

Every year when the basketball season comes to an end, we’re bombarded with the TV analysts casually mentioning which traditional powers are ‘loading up’ for next year and how many of their incoming recruits ate at McDonald’s the night before – sorry, played in the McDonald’s All-American game. Or the Jordan Classic All-Star game, or the Nike Summit game, or the Billy Packer Game that’s played in a barn in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa. The point is that these high school all-star games are becoming as ubiquitous as NCAA football bowl games. There’s too many to count, most of them are in places you’d rather never visit, and they all have meaningless outcomes. The other meaningless thing about them is that the players selected to play in them aren’t all that likely to become great college players.

The only time I can remember a team with a great recruiting class becoming successful in the short run was the Fab Five. And unfortunately, the hoopla over Chris, Jalen, and Juwan sparked the need for every subsequent top recruiting class to have a fancy little nickname.

So let’s see how this affects Duke. This year, they brought in top 100 players Lance Thomas, Gerald Henderson, Brian Zoubek, and Jon Scheyer. Google ‘2006 Duke recruiting’, and you’ll find that the class was considered top 15 in the nation by the recruiting ‘experts’. In fact, one of the leading recruiting websites,, called Brian Zoubek, and I quote, ‘a rarity in college hoops – a skilled 7-footer’. I could make all kinds of easy jokes about what he was skilled at, but I’ll refrain. The only thing the mentioned players will be remembered for from this year is blood – Henderson’s elbow that caused Tyler Hansbrough’s nose to flood, and Jon Scheyer’s bloody eye that forced him to come out of Duke’s 1st round game against VCU.

My feeling is that recruiting became too easy for Duke. They know that through Coach K’s commercials and the team’s success, they have incredible national visibility. They don’t need to hit the road to scout and find obscure players that no one else knows about. All they have to do is look at the top 5 high school seniors by position in the country, send them a cute little brochure, and expect that at least 3 of the players will commit to play.

So why is this bad? Well, the top-ranked players don’t always turn out to be as good as they were hyped to be, or they become complete stiffs (Shavlik Randolph). The other detriment to the Duke program is that they miss out on the hidden gems that end up at other programs. This year’s ACC player of the year, Jared Dudley, was a virtual unknown to most of college basketball as a high school player, and only got to BC after one of their recruits transferred to Minnesota. The long-limbed and athletic LSU defenders that shut down JJ Redick last year were most likely not even on the Duke scouting radar.

2. Assistant Coaches

Another thing we incessantly hear every college season is the lauding of the Duke coaching staff – the loyalty of Johnny Dawkins staying in Durham while he’s had many opportunities to be a head coach elsewhere, Dick Vitale getting teary-eyed talking about Wojo and Chris Collins staying at Duke and keeping the Duke tradition alive. One thing that isn’t mentioned too often – the Duke guys that leave to become head coaches after being Duke assistant coaches ARE TERRIBLE.

Tommay Amaker was fired from Michigan last week after he failed to get them to the NCAA tournament during his tenure there. Amaker was offered the Michigan job despite severely underachieving at Seton Hall, his first head coaching job. Another Duke guy, the well-coiffed Quin Snyder, left the Missouri program after numerous recruiting violations surfaced. Despite leading the Tigers to 4 NCAA appearances, the success dried up in a hurry once Snyder had to deal with the guys he recruited himself.

There’s a reason why we see Johnny Dawkins every year sitting next to Coach K. It’s his security blanket. If he left to go anywhere else, he’d fail miserably and the secret would be out. Instead, he can keep a cozy lifetime job on the Duke bench tracking turnovers and pass deflections with the only downside being getting spit on by Krzyzewski when he does some ‘coaching’. The problem with the Duke system is the same problem that Major League baseball teams encountered recently. I credit SI’s Tom Verducci with this thought, as he noted that until a few years ago, many MLB front offices were loaded with dead weight – ex-players that weren’t contributing much but could rely on an easy paycheck and an office with a view of the field.

Ironically, it is a former Duke player that did not assist Coach K who s now having the most success as a head coach. Jeff Capel got the head Oklahoma job after building credibility with successful seasons at Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth.

3. Coach K Himself

No one can question Duke’s regular season success in the past decade. But more often than not, that success has no translated to the postseason. Granted, the Blue Devils made the Final Four in 2005, but in the last 6 years, Duke has lost in the Sweet Sixteen 4 times and once in the 1st round, despite finishing the regular season ranked 1st twice in those years, and ranked 3rd in another.

Last year, JJ Redick could barely get his shot off against LSU in the loss that ended Duke’s season. He was clearly frustrated at his inability to get shot off the dribble, yet he continued to drive to the hoop against quicker and more athletic defenders. There was no change in the Duke strategy to get better shots from Redick or get offense from other players. Is that a complete indictment against Coach K as a coach? No, but he didn’t make necessary adjustments to get a win. In fact, of Duke’s early losses in the past 6 years, Coach K has been beaten by Michigan State in 2005, Kansas in 2003, and UConn in the Final Four in 2004.

If losing to Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, and Jim Calhoun in the tournament the last few years doesn’t eat at Coach K, it should. Given that Sweet Sixteen games allow for at least 3 full days of preparation and practice, Coach K has been unable to prepare his team and gameplan well enough to defeat his peer’s in the upper echelon of college coaches.

Tom Izzo is well-known for getting the most out of his players. His championship team led by Mateen Cleaves was talented, but their calling card was hard-nosed defense and relentless rebounding. When he’s had less talented teams, he is able to get results. This year’s Spartan team got to the 2nd round of the NCAAs after losing three players to the NBA off of last year’s squad.

Now I don’t want to go over the edge with the angle that Duke is falling apart. Obviously, making 5 trips to at least the Sweet Sixteen in the past 6 years is a standard that any college team would be happy with. The point is that given the Duke brand and their regular season success, they’ve fallen short in the postseason. In the same way that the New York Yankees consider their season a failure if they don’t end up with the World Series trophy, a Duke season is less than a success without a Final Four appearance. And that’s when all of us come riding in on our high horses to point out what’s wrong with Duke.


Kyle said...

Nice article, but I have to disagree with a few points here:
1) Yes, Amaker underachieved at Michigan, but you failed to note that the program was in shambles when he got there due to all the sanctions from the Brian Ellerbe regime. I thought Amaker did an OK job all things considered. His successor will be in decent shape when they take over, unlike Amaker when he came in.

2) I agree to a point about the current assistant coaches, but two former assistants, Bob Bender and Mike Brey are doing very well for themselves at Washington and Notre Dame. On the other hand, I'm a huge Duke fan but hate Wojo as much, if not more, than anyone else. I've been mystified at Duke's inability to recruit any decent b-level talent to fill out the bench, but that leads me to point three

3) Coach K has been very bad in the last four seasons or so just sticking to his 6 or 7 man rotation and the teams always suffers in the postseason because of it. That's why he always loses to Calhoun. Drives me nuts.

Oh well, UNC was the dregs of the ACC not long ago. We'll turn it around to.

Paul Rugani said...

Re: Bob Bender.

He got run out of Washington on a rail. Lorenzo Romar is now the coach there, and he's been the one responsible for the program's turnaround in the last few years.

Bender is often cited as an example of another branch of the Duke coaching tree that hasn't succeeded.

McCabe said...

Good points regarding the other assistants. I thought about Bender and Brey after I posted the article - Brey has had some success at ND, but I'd say that he has underachieved with the talent he has recruited, Torin Francis, Chris Thomas, etc.

Robio said...

Recruiting gets worse next season. If McRoberts leave, the Devils have no good players over 6'8.

The three incoming frosh are all swingmen/guards.

Kyle said...

Paul, I stand corrected. That's what I get for doing a 5 second google search.

McCabe, I'm not a fan of either of those guys, both were overrated imho. Perfect examples of guys being overvalued as underclassmen and having their games exposed the longer they stayed in school. I think Brey's doing a fine job. It's not like he's Matt Doherty or Pete Gillen.

All that said, I appreciate the even tone of your post. Much better than all the Duke hating (McRoberts is teh suxxor!, etc.) going on all across the interwebs. Cheers.

Oh, and I am all for lots of Brian Zoubek next year. He was woefully underused this year. Henderson and hopefully Sheyer will also come around. But yes, I have no idea who's going to rebound.