Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Evening with Vladimir, and Credit Where It's Due

Last night, I missed Duke's 74-49 win against Coastal Carolina due to a prior engagement at the 92nd St. Y. There, to celebrate the posthumous release of Vladimir Nabokov's novel "The Original of Laura," Brian Boyd, Martin Amis, and a very funny book designer named Chip Kidd spoke about the master.

The basic story of this book: Nabokov died in 1977, by most accounts about halfway done with "The Original of Laura." His explicit instructions, since he was an extreme perfectionist, were that the unfinished novel should be destroyed in the event of his death. But his wife Vera and son Dmitri didn't comply, and for 20-odd years they waffled about the fate of the work. Finally, this year, Dmitri (who seems pretty...strange) decided to let it see the light of day. Hence last night's festivities.

The two best parts:

1) A recording of Nabokov reading his poem "The Ballad of Longwood Glen" in the very same room in 1964. Before beginning, he announces that Wyoming is his "favorite state in existence."

2) Martin Amis, the British novelist, giving an amazingly great presentation about Nabokov the tragedist.

Anyway, the point of this is that I was going to offer a link to the video, since the 92nd St. Y gave a live webcast last night, but apparently it's either not up or not being offered. Which means that I should find a nice segue to discussing Duke basketball, and the distinction Coach K deserves for his early season prowess, or else this whole post is a wash...

Much like the fastidious Nabokov perfecting an outline, Coach Mike Krzyzewski obsessively prepares his charges in the pre-season, inevitably resulting in strong openings whose luster only fades when the unruly masses reach equal form after the New Year...

Screw it. The point is this: I give Coach K a lot of shit, and will probably continue to do so throughout the year. But credit where it's due: he doesn't screw up in the easy games. Year after year, strong teams falter in the early going, losing questionable contests due to lack of organization and motivation. This doesn't happen at Duke. Going backward in time, here's the early track record, our highest ranking, the catch-up moment when the shine wore off, and the end tourney result:

2008-09: 18-1 start, only loss comes at Michigan in December.
Highest Ranking: #1.
Catch-up moment: Starting January 28, we face three ranked teams in a 2-week span, and drop all 3.
Tourney: Sweet 16 loss to Nova.

2007-08: 22-1 start, only loss in OT to #9 Pittsburgh over Christmas break.
Highest ranking: #2.
Catch-up moment: late February, two losses on the road to unranked Wake and Miami. Tourney: Second round loss to West Virginia.

2006-07: 13-1 start, only loss to #17 Marquette.
Highest ranking: #5.
Catch-up moment: January, and consecutive losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
Tourney: First round loss to Virginia Commonwealth.

2005-06: 27-1 start (!), only loss at Georgetown in late January.
Highest ranking: #1.
Catch-up moment: two season ending losses to FSU and UNC.
Tourney result: Sweet 16 loss to LSU.

2004-05: 15-0 start.
Highest ranking: #2.
Catch-up moment: late January, losses to Maryland and Wake in a single week.
Tourney: Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State.

2003-04: 21-1 start, only loss to Purdue in 4th game of the year. This is the only "bad" loss in the early going I can find in the past 10 years.
Highest ranking: #1.
Catch-up moment: Consecutive road losses to NC State and Wake in mid-February.
Tourney: Final 4 loss to UConn.

2002-03: 12-0 start.
Highest ranking: #1.
Catch-up moment: Consecutive road losses to Maryland and NC State in late January.
Tourney: Sweet 16 at Kansas.

The year before that, I was a freshman and Jason Williams was the best player on the best team in the country. We lost a heartbreaking sweet 16 game to Indiana. The year before that, Battier and J-Will led us to the national title.

So, what does this prove? Coach K is a great early season coach. If you compile those admittedly arbitrary records, his 'early season' record over the last decade is 128-5. Arbitrary or not, lesser competition or not, that's pretty friggin' staggering. I guarantee no other program can match those numbers.

Unfortunately, it also shows that he's not a coach who can lead his team to a strong finish. As the season wears on, Duke fades. After all those strong beginnings, a top-5 ranking every year and four #1 appearances, we have only one final 4 appearance to show for it, and no national titles.

But this was meant to be a positive post, so: well done, Coach K. For all your faults, nobody will ever accuse your teams of being unprepared. They'll never fail for lack of effort. And you won't lose to the Coastal Carolinas of the world. There's something to be said for that.

Today's the day where ESPN shows games at all hours of the day. I didn't end up skipping work for it, though I already wish I had, but starting at 4pm this evening we'll have a chance to get a look at #22 Louisville, #20 Georgetown, #2 Michigan State, and #1 Kansas. Those with fancy sports packages can also check out UConn, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, all top 25. If you've been jonesing, it's a good day.

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