The Duke basketball team just wrapped up a second-place finish in the ACC Tournament. Usually, that would be nothing to be ashamed about. However, this Duke team stumbled into Selection Sunday where they likely earned a low two, or high three seed. Sure, their record of 2-2 over the last seven days is not bad, but anyone would say they are playing their worst basketball as March Madness officially arrives.
Duke Blue Devils Basketball Leadership Problem
As a Duke fan, player, or coach, you have to know that you are getting another team’s best shot every single game. That requires a championship-level performance every night. Obviously, that is incredibly difficult to do. This is the main reason why Duke basketball won their first regular-season ACC title in over a decade this season. However, that also means Duke knows the level of play required to cut down the nets in April. Usually, the result is a Duke team peaking as ACC tournament play begins, but that was not the case this year.
Just under a month ago, after beating Florida State and in the middle of what would become a seven-game win streak, Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he had “goosebumps” after realizing that his team had turned the corner. He mentioned how he could simplify the game plans now because his team had what it took to win March Madness. Since that statement, it seems Duke has gone in the exact opposite direction. They have lost two games by double digits, something that was not even close to happening throughout the season, and let two other teams hang around in games they should have controlled. So what is the problem?
Duke Basketball Needs Moore
Wendell Moore Jr is the veteran leader on this team. As a third-year player, he has experienced his fair share of winning huge games (see the game-winner over UNC), and difficult losses. He also showed that he put in so much work over the summer as he started the season playing better than anyone in the nation. Moore has a unique skill set to match his NBA-ready frame. He has improved every statistical category since his freshman season and prepared himself to be a first-round NBA pick in the coming draft.
However, Moore is the only player that plays consistent minutes that has any big-time college basketball experience. Duke utilizes three freshmen, a sophomore big man and a sophomore sixth man who have never experienced postseason play, and Moore. That puts all of the pressure on him to be the head of the snake and that just has not happened yet. Duke needs Moore to be the guy that wants the ball and to make plays with the ball. He has been harmed by Duke playing through Trevor Keels and Jeremy Roach as the playmakers which leaves Moore as a floor spacer and then he can check out from time to time.
Essentially, this is a long-winded way to say Duke basketball is running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
Coach K’s Final Push
Unfortunately, this Duke team has so much pressure on them to perform for Coach K’s final season. They have had two major opportunities for big moments in Coach K’s last year (the home game against UNC and the ACC Final) and sputtered in both. Luckily, they have the biggest and most meaningful opportunity remaining. If Duke can cut down the nets in New Orleans in April then all will be right in the world. So, how do they do it?
I believe this Duke roster is perfectly constructed. They have a fantastic frontcourt with Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams. They have great attacking guards in Moore, Roach, and Keels, and they have a lights-out shooter in AJ Griffin.
To win a national championship, one of those players mentioned above needs to get old quickly, so to speak. When you inevitably get punched in the mouth, who is the guy that steps up and brings everyone together? Who is the guy you give the ball to and know that a good shot is coming? For the last few weeks, it feels like the guys on the court have been looking around at each other waiting for something good to happen.
For me, Trevor Keels is the guy. He has scored over 15 points three times against a major conference opponent. In those games, Duke’s margin of victory is 18 points. He has never scored over 12 points in Duke’s losses, including four games with less than nine points. There is a clear correlation between Keels aggressiveness in getting to the rim and Duke’s ability to win a game.
We know what we will get from Banchero. The question is who will be the consistent second option. For Duke to win a title, it has to be Keels. In doing so, that should make him the leader.
While this last week has been frustrating as a Duke fan, the main goal is still attainable. Everyone has fallen off the Duke bandwagon, but remember, as Quinn Cook said, “Duke is never the underdog.”
Embed from Getty Images