It is obvious that Duke isn’t the same team without Ryan Kelly. That is the often overused excuse offered up by analysts and Duke fans alike to explain the recent struggles the Blue Devils have been having.
Duke is 1-2 without Kelly and the most recent setback, a 90-63 drubbing from the Miami Hurricanes showed a glaring weakness that appeared to have nothing to do with just a loss of one talented player. To me the issue facing Duke is a grave one, and one that won’t necessarily be solve through practice but rather self reflection. The problem is leadership and a refusal to except anything but the very best.
What Duke displayed early on against Miami was not the Blue Devils very best, but a team with strong leadership doesn’t allow type of play to persist and it did for a majority of the game. A team with strong leadership doesn’t allow their team to appear disinterested and not play hard for an entire 40 minutes regardless of the score. A team with strong leadership doesn’t allow one of its best player to go scoreless. A team with strong leadership may get beat, maybe even blown out, but they don’t play like Duke played against Miami; with seemingly little heart or effort at times.
Duke is 16-2 (3-2 ACC) with plenty of season left but they have reached a crossroad and the beatdown against Miami will be the measuring stick by which this team will be judged by the rest of the year. Will the way they played end up being an anomoly or a trend?
The issues with leadership aren’t related to the coaches. Mike Krzyzewski is one of the best leaders in the game of college basketball and has written more than a couple books and given more than a few lectures on the topic. He knows how to lead. The problems is with the players. Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee, specifically, can’t play like they did against Miami.
Curry was nonexistent in the game and often didn’t even look like he was into the game at all. People may use his leg injury as an excuse, but Curry has played the entire season with it and to this point it hasn’t really effected his abilty to score. He isn’t 100 percent but if he is on the court he has to be “on the court” and he wasn’t against Miami.
Plumlee looked nothing like the National Player of the Year candidate he is said to be. He was consitently pushed away from the basket and settled for driving hook shots instead of posting up strong and taking the ball to the basket. He recorded a double double but it goes without saying that it wasn’t his best performance.
As a whole, the team’s effort just wasn’t there on defense or offense. Duke looked lethargic and allowed Miami to push them around at will. That isn’t what a championship team does and that isn’t what a team with solid, and consistent leadership does.
I’m not trying to say that Plumlee and Curry aren’t capable of playing well and being leaders, but great leaders find ways to get their team behind them through good times and adversity, and as bad as Duke was on Wednesday night the leadership being in short supply made everything worse. There comes a time as a fan where you have to balance realism with loyalty. The realities of that loss will certainly not be lost on Mike Krzyzewkski and you can rest assured he will address his teams heart and performance in practice the next several days.
Duke fans are now more anxious than ever to get Ryan Kelly back but if this Duke team is only as good as one player, albeit an important player, then they are in trouble. Duke has lost key players before. They’ve lost Bobby Hurley, they’ve lost Grant Hill, they’ve lost Elton Brand, and Carlos Boozer, yet those teams for the most part responded. A big part of that was the leadership the remaining veteran players had and gave.
The Blue Devils in all my years of watching them have never looked as bad after losing one player. Only when they lost Krzyzewski back in 1995 did the absence of one person make such a difference in every facet of the team. Kelly is talented, but he isn’t Duke’s most talented player.
He may though have proven by not even playing that he is their most important player. In his absence Duke needs leadership from its remaining captains. It was no where to be found on Wednesday night and for the sake of the rest of the season they better find it and find it quickly.
This is still a talented team and they still can win a lot more games, but they have to dig deep and really look at themselves and whether as a team they are going to let Wednesday night represent them or if they will rise up to the challenge, and that will start with the team’s leaders. The only question is will they respond?