DURHAM, N.C. — Nearly two weeks ago, Duke appeared as it if had finally found itself, and the players were swagging in typical Blue Devils fashion.
The Devils were coming off an impressive win at Florida State, had exorcized the demons of their earlier home loss to the Seminoles, and for the first time all season, Duke had the look of a Final Four team.
Fast forward past the three games played since and it appears to Blue Devil Nation eyes as if the wheels are falling off. Duke (26-5) is reeling after getting drubbed at home by rival North Carolina on Saturday, and suddenly Mike Krzyzewski’s team looks like a possible early exit from the NCAA Tournament instead of a legitimate contender.
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“We were overwhelmed in the first half,” Krzyzewski said of the 88-70 loss in which Duke trailed 48-24 at the intermission.
It was a thorough beating, and Duke’s collective body language said a lot about what UNC did to it psychologically. Carolina got into the Devils’ heads and never left. The Tar Heels are probably still nestled inside.
But it’s now incumbent on Duke to purge everything about Saturday night from its inner core and relocate that swagger and moxy it had not so long ago. But it might be gone.
That’s how potentially devastating Saturday’s performance was.
“Throughout this year, we’ve been immature,” said Duke senior Miles Plumlee, the lone positive from Saturday, as he finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds in his final home game. “You give a great team like that a 20-point lead, it’s nearly impossible to win. We need to fight, like we did at times, for a whole game.”
Plumlee’s disappointment is understandable, and his lack of total recall is, as well. After all, Saturday was an emotional experience for him on multiple levels so he gets a pass. But there is some substance to his words.
It wasn’t quite two weeks ago when Duke went down to Tallahassee and fought for 40 minutes, and it was a month ago when the Blue Devils finally began feeling like most Duke teams under Krzyzewski after they overcame a 10-point deficit in the final 2:09 to stun the Tar Heels in the Dean Dome.
But an overtime win over Virginia Tech, which finished tied for last place in the ACC, an ugly win at Wake Forest — also tied for last place — in which the Demon Deacons used a late 21-4 run to scare the daylights out of the Devils, and Saturday’s effort might have severely damaged the confidence this team spent more than three months building.
Keep in mind, though, this is Duke, and its coach just might be the best in the sport’s history. Krzyzewski is a master communicator. He knows how to find the right buttons and how to push them. Now, he’s presented with another significant challenge that he will no doubt embrace.
Krzyzewski has a few days to allow Saturday’s embarrassment to work its way through the team’s system, but he can also sell to the players this is a new season now. Everyone is zero and zero. And the true ACC champion is the tournament winner so Duke still has tons to play for.
“We’ve got to regroup and learn from the 31 games and try to get refreshed this week to go down to Atlanta and win some more before the NCAA Tournament,” the legendary coach said.
And there is a precedent for rebounding from an end-of-the-season disaster at the hands of those arch enemies from just down the road to winning the conference crown.
Carolina clobbered Duke a year ago 81-67 to outright win the ACC regular season title, but a week later, the Devils got revenge to the tune of a 75-58 beating in the ACC title game. In 2006, a freshman-laden UNC team beat Duke in Cameron in the last home game for J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, but a week later the Blue Devils were ACC champs again.
Just maybe the mental tide began changing before reporters were booted from Duke’s locker room Saturday night. Or maybe freshman sensation Austin Rivers is just too young to know better.
“Yes, we do,” he replied when asked if they want to face the Tar Heels in Atlanta. “We’ve got to take care of business first because the ACC is full of great teams. . . So we have to handle business first, but if we do end up playing them, it’s going to be a battle.”
Youthful ignorance perhaps, but if the Blue Devils can recover psychologically and head into Atlanta ready to feel like Duke again, Rivers could be right.