Monday, December 6, 2010

The Undefeated Proclamation

You knew it was coming. You had to know. We just ended a very tough 8-game stretch with an awful lot of travel and some good and maybe great opponents. We faced two top-10 teams and a Big East school in Marquette that will probably be ranked by season's end. A few of the games were difficult, but none came down to the wire. In the worst game, against Marquette on a neutral floor, they managed to outscore the Devils 46-42 in the second half by virtue of some late bombs. In every other game, the second half belonged to Duke.

A look at the schedule shows that there are no more ranked teams left to face. Yes, UNC might crawl back into the top-25 with their win over Kentucky. And Temple, who comes to Cameron in late February, was ranked last week. But otherwise? Slim pickings. The ACC in particular seems to be a severely underachieving group.

That being said, nothing comes easy. As always, each ACC road game will feature a frenzied crowd waiting for their chance to charge the court. And if Duke does maintain the undefeated streak into late January and early February, the attention will add a level of stress. No team has gone undefeated and won a national title since Indiana in 1976, and no team boasts an unblemished regular season since St. Joseph's in 2004. The last team to do it from a major conference was UNLV in 1991 (lost to Duke in the Final Four), and before that you have to go back to Larry Bird's Indiana State team in 1979.

Still, Duke's unique combination of talent, winning experience, and senior leadership makes them a prime candidate. The Butler game was a measure of how difficult they are to handle even on a bad shooting night. They hit only 8 of 26 from 3, and they conceded 10 offensive rebounds to Butler. Even so, they wore down a strong defensive team and scored 49 in the second half to run away with the win. So, without any further ado, it's time to say the unsayable:


On THIS day, the 6th of December, as we bask in the heavenly sign of Sagittarius, I do hereby proclaim with heart unsullied and faith unhindered, mired not in the muddy earth of doubt and equivocation, a prognostication of such resounding clarity that it shall be known as truth upon its very utterance: the Duke University men's basketball team, those blue-shod boys fighting under the sobriquet rouge 'Devils,' shall not be made impure by the heinous stench of loss in this, their 2010-11 campaign. To the contrary, they shall finish the season basking in the flawless sunlight of the most refined and blissful kingdom e'er created by sporting deity. They shall reside in the rarefied realm of the undefeated.

It is written.

Okay, so now that we're telling truths, I'd like to alert the national media and the country at large to something very important:

Gordon Hayward of Butler missed the half court shot that would have beaten Duke in last year's title game.

Seriously. He missed it.

That particular incident in time is now over.

I get that it was a great game. I get it. I get that his shot came pretty close. But the amount of over-analyzing and re-watching and what-iffing has got to stop. ESPN ran a segment before Saturday's game where they had some math guy look at the shot and determine that if Hayward had shot 3 inches to the left or .5 mph slower, it would have gone in. Great. Wonderful. Didn't happen.

You know what else might have happened if he got to take the half court shot again? It might have been far the fuck off. You know why that might have happened? Because it's a half court shot. Good Lord, you'd think he missed a lay-up.

Trivia for the college basketball media machine: who is the all-time NCAA leader in half court shooting percentage?

Answer: Stats don't exist, because nobody takes those shots on a regular basis. Why? BECAUSE THEY'RE SO FUCKING HARD.

That being said, though, I can't resist getting on board with the speculation. Here are 10 other things that could have happened at the end of the Duke-Butler game, if things were just a little different.

1. If the basketball hoop was a gigantic 20 foot by 20 foot square, rather than a small cylinder, Hayward's shot would have gone in. A lot of other shots would have gone in too, though, and a close examination of the film determines that the score would have been 320-314, Duke.

2. If Gordon Hayward had neglected to shoot the ball, and instead slammed it hard into his own testicles, he would have collapsed in pain on the court. Duke would still have won, but the celebration would have been weird.

3. If the basketball Gordon Hayward was actually a watermelon, it would have fallen fifteen feet short and splattered near the foul line. Coach K would have immediately left the bench to dive face first into the carnage, gleefully spreading red watermelon juice all over his hair, face, and chest.

4. If Gordon Hayward had punted the ball, Nolan Smith would have had the opportunity to call a fair catch near the base line.

5. If the game was paint ball instead of basketball, Hayward would have been very vulnerable in the moment right after he shot. He stared at his shot too long without any attempt at diversion, and failed to take cover after the miss. If you look at the footage, Scheyer was in perfect position to take him out for a good 15-20 seconds. Splat-splat-splat. Game over. Duke still wins.

6. If Nolan Smith owned stilts and goaltending wasn't a rule, he would have set up in front of the basket while Zoubek was taking his foul shots, and he could have easily blocked Hayward's shot. Also, stilts would have to be legal.

7. If coaches each had one "no-makey" token, when they could disallow one basket per game made by the other team, I mean...there's no telling what would have happened. RIGHT?!

8. If Gordon Hayward was an East German female swimmer from the year 1984, they would have discovered that constant injections of testosterone had given him many masculine characteristics, including excessive facial hair, and made him ineligible to compete in the Olympics.

9. If the Duke-Butler championship game was a tragic opera, Hayward's shot would have gone in slow motion, and he would have had sung a beautiful aria as he watched its trajectory, and he and Scheyer both would have drawn their knives, and when it missed, Hayward would have bared his chest and Scheyer would have honorably murdered him near half court.

10. If the refs had called the vicious foul committed by Matt Howard on Singler just before the shot (11-second mark), it would have been disallowed anyway.

That last one? Poignant.

Moving on: let's give some credit to Butler. They played an incredibly tough game on Saturday. Yes, they benefited from a poor first-half shooting performance. But their defense deserves a little credit, and so does coach Brad Stevens. He signed a 12-year contract extension after last year's title game, but if I were any struggling school, or any struggling big program in the whole country (Michigan, anyone?), I would have broken the bank for this guy. I think he's the best coach in the game now, and it's beyond debate that he's the best young coach. He's going to have a long and brilliant career, and it amazes me that nobody threw any money at this guy.

So Duke made it through the difficult opening stretch without a loss, and now our schedule gets easy until January 2nd. Bradley, St. Louis, Elon, and UNC-G are all visiting Cameron, and there'll be plenty of time to rest between games. After that, the ACC schedule begins. December gives Coach K a chance to tinker with the team's mechanics risk free. Let's take a quick look at some of the issues he'll be trying to resolve between now and then.

1. The interplay between guards. The second half against Butler is probably the best Nolan and Kyrie have looked together all year. Still, there are times when Duke's offense seems to be a one-or-the-other proposition. In addition, Singler was more or less shut down against MSU and Butler. With the best point guard in the nation running the show, there should never be a point when he and Nolan (and Dawkins) aren't getting open shots. They look brilliant at times, but often they seem to exist on an island. This is an element of the offense that should improve as the season goes along, and the groundwork can be put in place throughout December.

2. Seth Curry. In the important games, he's been limited to around 10 minutes of playing time. It seems like he hasn't quite made the transition from Liberty, where he was able to function as a one-on-one player with a nose for scoring. At Duke, he has to play within the system, and apparently all of last year's practices haven't caught him up to game speed. The contrast between he and Dawkins, who I can't praise enough, is pretty stark at this point in the season. But Coach K will want another functioning guard when he wants to go small, and he'll want that guard to play closer to 15 minutes per game. Maybe more, if possible. The learning curve is steep, but if Seth doesn't earn that trust in the next month, before the tougher ACC schedule begins, he'll have trouble being anything other than a bit player.

3. Miles Plumlee. Let's be frank: the start to this season has been a complete disaster for Miles. In some ways, he's facing the same issues as Seth Curry. A poor showing early limited his minutes against tough opponents, and then he felt like he had to earn his time back in limited minutes. So he pressed himself when he was in the game, committing dumb fouls and letting the pressure affect him on offense, and his minutes were reduced even more. The vicious cycle has further subtracted from his playing time, and now he's on the outside looking in. But unlike Curry, who can be a strong scorer and has a chance to find his niche within the team, Miles seems feckless and discouraged. Watching him play, it's hard to imagine that he can ever be effective for Duke. The skill set is just totally missing. On either end, really. But we're a weak interior team, and if there's any quality to be found in that graceless white body, Coach K will have to bring it out soon.

And now the positives, in order of awesomeness: Kyrie Irving being himself, Dawkins' improvement, Nolan's consistency, Singler's toughness, and Coach K approaching Dean Smith, slowly but surely.

That's it for Monday. Be good, be safe, be happy. And tell me how much you would like to punch this segment, if it was possible to punch segments (any progress, science?):


  1. It. Never. Goes. In.

  2. Give it time, anonymous. Something's gotta give!


  3. things:
    1) the saddest part about the "sports science" bit where they analyzed hayward's shot is that it ran on within a few days after the game. so they were apparently that desperate to rehash content.

    2) your tenth what-if point is possibly the biggest "what if" ever - what if hayward had made the shot... do they call that foul? did the refs even see it in real time? i know i certainly didn't. thank heavens we'll never have to find out.

    3) totally agree that miles is off to an unbelievably rough start, and it's largely an issue with his confidence. but i'm not giving up on him yet. read this again - "Watching him play, it's hard to imagine that he can ever be effective for Duke. The skill set is just totally missing. On either end, really. But we're a weak interior team, and if there's any quality to be found in that graceless white body, Coach K will have to bring it out soon." rewind to one year ago, and who would you have been writing about? the guy who turned into the key reason we won it all.

    (btw, not suggesting you ARE giving up on miles. just pointing out the eerie parallels.)

  4. I love the optimism, Lara. If Miles could turn into Zou, I would be incredibly pleased. There's some strength to be gained, but I hope you're right.