Speaking of alive, well...we are. Barely. As you guys have probably gathered by this point, I am a reactive person. And I don't always bury those reactions. I think a strong initial impression should be out in the open. Maybe it's right, maybe it's wrong, or maybe it's kind of right but too extreme. In any case, it fosters discussion, and I've never felt comfortable with people who censor themselves.
Here's my point: after yesterday's game, I was angry.
I'm a fairly positive fan when Duke wins, especially in the tournament. You can't have a healthy relationship with sports if you're an unwavering perfectionist, because the perfect game is all too rare. But Duke's win over Michigan was the odd case where I couldn't even enjoy advancing. If I had written today's post at that moment, it would have been a raving piece of vitriol.
But today, after teams like Notre Dame and Syracuse and Texas have been sent home, I feel more grateful. So let's get both sides of the story, because I think they're both true:
Plainly speaking: Coach K's 900th win was his worst. He took a talented, special group of basketball players with the potential to do great things and nearly ruined their season.
The game's first half had the distinct sickening feeling of a contest that would come down to the bitter, terrifying end. Aside from a few offensive rebounds, the Plumlees were awful. Our 3-point shooting was cold. Kyle Singler was playing like he's played all season, and missing foul shots to boot. Zack Novak and Evan Smotrycz were out of their respective minds. Nolan Smith picked up 2 early fouls, Seth Curry couldn't hit his shots, and Kyrie Irving, again, looked slow.
I still had a sour taste in my mouth from the UNC win, and my state of mind at halftime was decidedly negative. We held a 37-33 lead, but it felt like the wrong kind of game. You could tell the Michigan fans were representing themselves well, and the closer things stayed, the more support they'd have from the powder blues who stuck around to root against Duke.
The Wolverines were playing like they had nothing to lose. When we attacked their 1-3-1 zone, it paid dividends, but all too often we weren't attacking. In the SCSD live chat, nobody felt good. It seemed like the kind of game that would require a late escape. When the second half started, it confirmed our worst fears; Michigan got within two on a Jordan Morgan lay-up. Everybody braced themselves for the battle.
And then Nolan Smith happened.
In less than two minutes, he scored 10 points all by himself. He rescued us, like he's done so many times this season. By the 14:28 mark, our lead had ballooned to 12, 49-37. This was the explosion we'd been waiting for, the promised and patented run. Michigan's shooters had come back to earth, and now it was time for the real talent to assert itself. We were too good, and too tough, to let these guys hang around. Cream's gotta rise, baby.
Michigan fought hard, though, and despite being down by as many as 15, they brought it back to 6 on two separate occasions. Still, it was evident by the flow of the game that they couldn't stick with us, wouldn't have the firepower both to score the points they needed and contain Duke on defense.
But it turned out, lucky wolves, that they wouldn't need to contain us on defense. Coach K would handle that on his own.
The dreaded fucking stall. We've seen it cost us before, too many times, and now he was unleashing it again. WITH 8 MINUTES REMAINING. 8 minutes. Against a team that could shoot threes. Against a team playing a 1-3-1 defense, which is perfectly, perfectly designed to harass a point guard trying to run a stall.
A couple thoughts:
1) Some people were lamenting our inability to attack the 1-3-1. Guys, that wasn't the issue. We attacked it pretty well at various points throughout the game. In the final 8 minutes, the Dukies were under orders not to attack. Imagine a younger sibling is a pain in the ass, constantly getting in your face and being a pest. Eventually, you throw him to the ground, he runs off and cries, and in a flash he understands the consequences and stops bothering you, right? But what if, for some reason, you were completely unable to react and just had to stand there while he annoyed you? You'd be playing into his hands, going against your natural instincts, and all the problems would persist.
2) Others, including myself, concluded after the game that John Beilein out-coached Coach K. (My tweet: "Congrats to John Beilein for making K look like he was coaching his first game.") I no longer think that's true. I think Coach K out-coached himself. The 1-3-1 wasn't some kind of brilliant tactical maneuver. Beilein had gone to it before, and then he went away from it at times because Duke showed an ability to attack. He only went to the 1-3-1 at the end out of desperation. He needed to try something new. If Coach K hadn't called off the dogs, the 1-3-1 would've met the same fate it met before. Instead, we played right into Beilein's hands.
3) Why the hell did Coach K go to a 4-guard lineup for the last 10 minutes? Look, we know Michigan spreads the floor. We know it can be tough for big guys to get out on shots in those situations. But we were murdering them on the offensive boards. Just making an absolute killing. That's partly how we built the 15-point lead. Then, in a flash of idiocy, Coach K decided we would beat them at their own game. "Sure, let's put 4 guards on the floor. Our guys are better than theirs, and we'll beat them at their own game."
Well, guess what happened? Our offensive boards disappeared, Michigan dragged us to their level, we tried to get out of the jam by launching late threes, and we nearly went home early.
4) And why did we slow the game down? We built the lead by playing fast! Michigan was clearly uncomfortable on the run, and they were already playing cautious because of their foul trouble. So we stop running, and we stop being aggressive? Tell me how that makes sense.
In yesterday's post, we talked about how important pace would be. Michigan plays slow, big-10 basketball, averaging 63 possessions per game. Duke averages 70. Guess how many possessions we had yesterday? 61. Guess how many possessions we had when an inferior Virginia Tech team beat us on the road? 61.
So. Fucking. Stupid. And possibly arrogant. When we played our game, we made Michigan look exactly like the team they are: an 8-seed. Sure, they were hitting some threes. But in case we didn't notice, that wasn't breaking our back. Even when they were really, really hot in the first half, we still came out with a 4-point lead. Then the percentages corrected themselves and we started the rout.
And then, because of hubris or panic or whatever, Coach K took our bigs out, stopped running, and stopped being aggressive in the face of their debilitating foul trouble. Unfathomable.
5) Someone made this comment in the live chat yesterday: "All you people who don't like the stall must hate it when your football team runs out the clock at the end of games, right?"
Tell you what, man. I've seen an awful lot of football games where a team's passing game is spectacular, and they build up, let's say, a 2-touchdown lead. Then the fourth quarter starts, and they decide to play conservative. Run out the clock. But quarters are long. And guess what? It turns out the team was so good at passing because that's their strength. When they start to run, they find out what they already knew, which is that they're not very good at running. Which, incidentally, is why they were passing in the first place. So they go 3 and out, and punt, and the other team scores quickly because the first team's defense didn't get a lot of time to rest. No big deal, though, they're still up 7. They should probably still take the air out of the ball, right? Yeah, run it. Waste time. Oops, another 3-and-out because they still can't run. Another punt. Another quick score by the other guys, because now their defense has nothing in the tank. And, shit, look at that: it's a tie ball game, and there are still 7 minutes left. Better start passing again, since that's how they score. Except now the offense has lost a little confidence, or maybe they meet some bad luck, or maybe the opposing defense suddenly feels rejuvenated. Suddenly, they can't score, and suddenly it's too late, and suddenly a sure victory becomes a loss.
We've all seen that. And we nearly saw the basketball equivalent yesterday. Sure, fine, sometimes the stall works. Maybe even most of the time. But it doesn't work because it's such a brilliant strategy; it works because we have a big enough lead, and there's not a lot of time on the clock. The stall, by definition, takes Duke out of its effective offense. It makes them less likely to score, and it opens the doors of momentum for the other team. That's why I hate it. Why depart from the flow that's worked so well in the first place? It's one thing to run the clock out when you're up 20 with 4 minutes left, but why change a winning strategy when an outcome is still in doubt? It's never made sense.
Eight minutes is far too early to start the stall. That's true against a normal team, but it's especially true against a team that can shoot threes. And believe me, I know I'm not the only one complaining. None of us are probably charter members of the Clark Kellogg fan club, but he was absolutely right yesterday. He took Coach K to task over and over, and I was glad he had the cojones to tell the truth.
Here's what my anger boils down to: we played timid. We played like the inferior team. All the amazing weapons at our disposal floundered on the court in a cowardly prevent offense, unused and withering. We played like a team that was afraid to lose, and that is not Duke basketball. If I were a Michigan fan, here's what I'd be saying to Duke fans after that game:
"Congrats on the win, you scared poseurs. We both know you practically shit yourselves pulling that one out, and we both know that if the game was a minute longer, you'd have lost. Our coach is better, and sure, maybe we're going home, but we walk away knowing we're tougher."
And that pisses me off, because I know our guys are tough. I know we can play under pressure, and I know we're not a bunch of cowards who can't hold a lead. This one is on Coach K. His stall tactics made us lose our confidence, and that's almost unforgivable. And you know what? It might carry over. These kinds of things linger, guys. This one might stay in the brain. Or it might not. But there was no reason for it.
6) Survive and Advance. That's what people were saying after the game. But sorry, that's not good enough for me. Not right now. It's not enough just to win. If this was the championship game, fine. But it's not, it's the second damn round. And believe me, the style of our victory doesn't help our cause. I have a sick feeling we'll be seeing the after-effects of the game's last 8 minutes in the near future.
Here's how it happened. Here's how we almost lost it all:
At 7:32, Nolan Smith makes two foul shots. 64-54 Duke. The stall is in place. He makes a lay-up. 66-54, 7 minutes left. Morris scores, but Nolan hits two more. Morgan makes a lay-up, and it's 68-58 with 6 minutes on the clock. Kyrie turns it over. Morris scores. Dawkins takes a late three, misses, and Michigan fast breaks. That's another problem: missed shots on the stall lead to quick scores for the other team. Morris dishes to Morgan, who throws down a sick dunk and starts woofing. Now the crowd's involved, UNC fans and all, meaning Duke will become even more tentative. Nolan turns it over, but thankfully Novak misses a three. Kyrie misses a shot, but Ryan Kelly's there to tip it in. Even without two bigs in the game, we still manage to get some offensive boards. That's what we could have been doing all along. Now it's the under-4 timeout, and Duke's up 70-62.
When we come back, Tim Hardaway nails a jumper. Nolan waits and waits and waits and misses a three. Hardaway makes another jumper. Duke turns it over. Then, because of the stall, we can't even create an attempt. Shot clock violation. Duke, of all teams, gets a shot clock violation. Hilarious. Hardaway nails a three. Now it's 70-69, and there's one minute left.
The stall has cost us our lead. Coach K has mortgaged our season for a tentative strategy that played right into Beilein's hands. We conceded the philosophical high ground to a team that couldn't hang with us if they tried, and now we're holding on for dear life. We might as well already have lost. We deserve whatever happens.
Kyrie hits a shot, Morris hits a shot. Nolan makes one foul shot, and misses the second. 73-71 Duke, 9 seconds left.
And in that moment, with Darius Morris taking the ball upcourt, we can see it; we can see how the season ends. He fakes the drive, pulls up from three, and hits the shot. Or he penetrates, spots Novak spotting up on the wing, makes the great pass, and Novak does the rest. Or Seth Curry forgets the situation, fouls him on the pull-up, and Morris makes the shot.
It's all there, in a script that's been written in ink over the last 8 minutes: how to fuck up a basketball game.
Then again, Morris missed the shot. We won. Other teams were not so lucky. There are some harsh realities in March, and a couple very good teams got schooled. Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Purdue, and Texas all fell. San Diego State escaped. Florida escaped. UNC escaped. And yeah, Duke escaped.
Who cares if we could have avoided the escape? Who cares if it could have been easier? This is just a game, and saying that the end might be confidence-shattering as we go forward is unsupported speculation. Survive and advance really does mean something, and history is full of eventual champions who had to overcome a bad game against an inferior team.
I just hope Coach K has learned his lesson. Because this has happened before. In fact, that whole game reminded me of nothing so much as Duke-Indiana, 2002.* The worst loss in school history, for my money. Michigan over Duke would have been equally hard to take.
*I heard echoes of Duke-UConn 2004, too.
In the end, I think my negativity about yesterday is a sort of fear-induced trauma. It's hard to watch a team almost lose and not think about the worst-case scenario. It reminds me of a time when I was a little kid riding with my dad in our truck, and we stopped on the side of the road because there was a sheer rock face that I liked to see; the kind they blast to make a road. This time, dad told me we could walk up the side and stand on top. It was winter, though, and he made me promise to stay far away from the edge. So we walked up the side, and got to the top, and I saw the world from 40 feet in the air.
But that wasn't enough; I wanted to get closer. We took some cautious steps forward, and my dad warned me to stop. But I was a fearless young adventurer, bold to the point of heroic, and I wanted to get right to the edge. So I went further, despite the warnings. Right to the very edge. What a view! And because I was a foolish little kid, I slipped on a patch of ice and fell forward. That was it, for me- the closest I've come to dying. But my dad is a strong guy, and I felt a sudden, hard tug on my coat. Instead of falling forward, I was whipped back. He spared me the hard, rocky ground; I landed in a forgiving pile of snow.
Back in the truck, though, I didn't think about the fact that I was still there, jittery and scared but verifiably among the living. No way. I thought about the fall. I thought about how stupid I'd been, and how close to the end. The thing that didn't happen, thank God, played out in my mind over and over. I'm the only person I really know; how is it possible that I could die?
Which, I realize, is a melodramatic way to talk about a basketball game. But we don't watch Duke in a restless state of agitation because we don't care. We don't obsess about strategy, we don't read and write about the team for hours on end, and we don't let their wins and losses affect our mood because it doesn't matter. It's better not to ask the exact name of what we're feeling, just like you never want to look directly in the sun, but it's definitely something.
I'm grateful for the win. I mean it. But I'm still imagining the Morris three-pointer that never happened. I'm still re-living everything that made it possible. Duke, after all, is the only team that matters; how could they lose?
This one's going to take a day or two.