It's over. We've seen Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler in a Duke uniform for the last time. Probably ditto on Kyrie Irving. Maybe ditto on Andre Dawkins, in the off chance that he transfers.
Here are a few reasons we lost the game, briefly, in a haphazard but roughly diminishing order of importance:
1. Arizona's ungodly play
2. Nolan Smith's disappearance
3. Mason Plumlee reverting to Plumblefuck the Younger
4. Seth Curry's injury
5. Miserable defense
6. Poor rebounding
9. Kyrie Irving's least favorite science: Chemistry
Let's start at the top.
1. Arizona's ungodly play
In the first half, this was just Derrick Williams' ungodly play. He kept them in the game with 25 points and five threes. I think his last three, an awkward high-arcing loft over Ryan Kelly at the buzzer, might have been his biggest; it cut the Duke lead from 9 to 6 and gave Arizona a psychological boost going into the intermission.
After that, he didn't score much. He didn't have to; his teammates played the game of their lives. They finished 34-63 from the field, and 9-15 from three. That's an effective field goal % of 61.1% I mean...fuck.
Arizona's offensive efficiency: 134.7.
Let's look at that number again. 134.7. When Duke lost to St. John's, a game that felt really, really similar, their efficiency, which is "points scored per 100 possessions," was 125.7. Those of us who suffered through that game can attest tat 125.7 felt like a perfect score, like a team couldn't possibly play any better.
Let's put that 134.7 into context.
A) It's the best single-game offensive efficiency Duke has faced this season.
B) Wait, strike that. Ken Pomeroy keeps these stats going back to 2003. This is the best single-game offensive efficiency Duke has ever faced. (You know...at least since 2003.) UPDATE: Statsheet.com keeps stats back to 1997, and it's still the highest single-game offensive efficiency Duke has faced (thanks to anonymous commenter).
C) Half-credit to commenter Matt on this one: Duke, the 4th-most efficient offense in the country, cracked that number just twice: once against Colgate (318th in D-1), and once against UNC-Greensboro (268th).
D) Just for laughs, I looked at Ken Pomeroy's top 25. Exactly two of those teams has faced a team with better efficiency this season. It happened to Wisconsin, when Ohio State dropped a 159.3 efficiency rating on the last day of the season, and it happened to Purdue when VCU scored to the tune of 143.1 last weekend. Other than those two games, no top 10 team has faced a more powerful offense this season.
E) Arizona themselves have not played this well on offense since...the very first game of the season, when they defeated Idaho st. 90-42 at home. Seriously. Arizona's second-best offensive game of the season came against Duke, who you might remember has a top-5 ranked defense. They had more trouble at home against teams like Bethune Cookman (294th in Division 1) and Cal St. Fullerton (260th).
I mean, seriously guys...I'm heartbroken. This was a devastating loss I didn't expect. I'm going to feel down for a couple days, and I'll always wonder what might have been this season.
But, at the same time: holy shit. Holy unfortunate shit. What the hell are you supposed to do with a game like that? They played out of their goddamn heads. It's not really a reflection of either team; they just couldn't miss. If that game was played 100 more times, Arizona would literally never achieve that rate of offensive efficiency again. I can say that with almost absolute certainty. So what do you do? What do you do when absolutely everything goes against you, when a fluky game comes along in the Sweet 16?
You throw your hands in the air. That just happened, and there's nothing to be done. Sometimes life deals you a fucking lemon. I'm about to go into a bunch of other reasons for the loss, but with Arizona playing that well, we could not have won. No way, no how.
What a nightmare. And this is where we get into an element that's going to appear throughout this post: bad luck. We had it in spades yesterday.
2. Nolan Smith's Disappearance
I love Nolan Smith. That's not going to change. He's given us a wonderful four years, complete with ACC championships and a national title. He's been the man on the spot this year, and he's never let the team down.
Last night, he had his worst game of the season. I didn't expect it, and I still can't believe it. Was that Nolan out there? What could possibly have happened? It wasn't just his poor shooting (3-14, 0-3 from deep), and it wasn't just his 2 assists or his 6 turnovers. It was that he looked lost, and he never got found.
And now I'm going to bring something up that I'll explore later in greater depth. It's become a hugely controversial topic, and it's bound to make heads explode around Duke nation. But I'll ask it anyway: did the return of Kyrie Irving throw Nolan into a funk? Did it affect him not to have the ball in his hands at all times? Were we better off with Nolan at point guard for an entire game?
I thought Jay Bilas put it best: Duke was playing excellent basketball at the end of the ACC Tournament. Their best of the year, maybe. But to win a national title, they needed some form of Kyrie Irving. So that's fine. However, once they had Kyrie Irving, it became clear that it was a little too sudden. Nolan wasn't quite comfortable in his new role, and Kyrie wasn't dominant enough to overcome that problem.
On the other hand, Seth Davis, a guy I respect a lot, thinks it's a lazy talking point that can't come remotely close to explaining the loss.
But there was a real oddity at play last night. When things went bad, our style to that point dictated that we had to be rescued by one guy: Kyrie Irving. He was, suddenly, the man we were all counting on. How the hell did that happen? I'm never going to deny Kyrie's amazing talent, but frankly, this was Nolan's team. That changed in the tournament, and I have to say, at the risk of invoking the wrath of the Dukies, that it was a bad change.
Nobody really knows what this game would have looked like if the Duke team from two weeks ago played. It would have been different. I'm not saying we would have won, and I'm not saying we would have lost. It just would have been different, and the team would at least have had a solid sense of itself. I think a lot of fans really missed the point on that one. After the game, I kept hearing some variation of this comment: "Imagine how bad that would have been without Kyrie!" As if, to get an accurate picture of a Kyrie-less team, you just subtract his 28 points and Duke loses 93-49.
That's ridiculous. I will spend a lot of time wondering what might have happened if Kyrie never played, and I will never have a definitive answer. But I do know that we wouldn't have been looking at the same kind of game.
Back to the topic at hand. I felt awful for Nolan. Really, really awful. He came out of that game and you could see the hurt in his eyes. The moment when the game was lost even came down to him; with 6:04 to go and Duke down 11, he led a fast break off a defensive board, beat his man, and then missed an easy lay-up. That would have cut the deficit to 9 and given us a fighting chance, but it wasn't to be. Solomon Hill made a lay-up, Kevin Parrom hit a 3, and that was that.
He's a strong kid, so he'll get over this. He has a title to his name and a bright future. But he deserved a better ending. Again, I find myself saying the sentence above: "sometimes life deals you a fucking lemon."
3. Mason Plumlee Reverting to Plumblefuck the Younger
He couldn't even get a rebound. Arizona's offensive rebounding rate was 47%.
And guys, they fucking HIT 50% of their shots. That means that on roughly 75% percent of their possessions, they either made a shot or got a second chance. How are you supposed to win a game under those circumstances?
Take a guess: when was the last time Duke gave up that high a percentage on the offensive glass?
Answer: March 14, 2009, against Maryland.
And the really sad part is that Arizona has one person on their roster over 6'8". That's Kyryl Natyazhko, and he played six minutes last night. After that, Williams is 6'8" and the rest of their starters are 6'6" or under.
Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee, and Ryan Kelly, all 6'10", grabbed a combined 12 rebounds for the game. Derrick Williams had 13. They out-boarded us 40-27. They had 16 offensive boars to our 9. AND THEY DIDN'T HAVE A SINGLE FUCKING PLAYER WITHIN 2 INCHES OF OUR BIGGEST GUY.
WE should have been owning the glass. And, to be fair for just a minute, it was one of those games where a ton of rebounds or loose balls found their way to Arizona. Sometimes life deals you a fucking lemon. But Mason was never in position. He has no basketball IQ. It's not like he was even overtly bad, beyond that hook shot in a critical moment. He just disappeared. He couldn't step up in a game he had a chance to dominate.
If you want to pinpoint a single reason that Duke wasn't a national title team this year, look no further than the Plumlees. It's been a long time since we recruited an effective big man, and we found ourselves stuck this season. If you don't like bad news, don't think about what that means for next season.
4. Seth Curry's Injury
He's been the second ingredient in our success so many times this season. I don't think there's a soul on the planet who thinks we would have won the home against UNC without him. And he's fantastic on defense.
In 8 minutes of game time, Seth was 1-2 from the field with a steal and an assist. After he left, we were stuck with Andre Dawkins and his awful perimeter defense. Make no mistake: losing Seth absolutely killed this team.
More bad luck. Sometimes life deals you a fucking lemon.
5. Miserable Defense
Arizona was on the attack all game. Dawkins got exposed, Ryan Kelly got exposed, and the Plumlees got exposed. Even Kyrie Irving got exposed; he's still not quick enough to guard effectively on the perimeter.
And when we played good defense, they still hit their shots. Who can forget Momo Jones hitting the fadeaway over Kyle and looking back at Sean Miller with a defiant glare while Miller angrily waved him back on defense.
I think we're looking at a chicken-egg scenario. What came first? The ridiculous shots falling, or the heart of our defense breaking? My gut says that the back-breaking desperation heaves that kept going in preceded the utter breakdown, but I suppose that's up for debate.
6. Poor Rebounding
We already did that one, didn't we? See #3.
Screw it, some more context:
Arizona's 47% offensive rebounding rate was the highest any of Ken Pomeroy's top 10 teams faced for the entire season barring two: Connecticut grabbed 48.4% against Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament, and Alabama grabbed 53.3% in a mid-season game against Kentucky.
Oh, and by the way, Arizona was 139th in offensive rebounding rate this season. Here are the teams Duke faced this season with superior numbers in that category, along with that team's offensive rebounding % against Duke: UNC (37.0, 31.9, 39.3), Miami (36.5, 38.6), Florida St. (30.6), NC St. (40.0, 24.3), Maryland (34.4, 30.9), Michigan St. (45.1), Georgia Tech (36.8), and Clemson (40.4).
Sometimes. Life. Deals. You. A. *collapses in anger, sobbing*
And what about our offensive boards? Well, Duke averages 35.1%. Yesterday, on a night when we shot slightly below our usual field goal %, we ended at 27.3% on the offensive glass. Not as glaringly awful as the other end of the floor, but still pretty poor.
What about another timeout during Arizona's 316-12 run? Would that have been too much to ask?
And what about the Kyrie situation?
And what about maybe staying big with Mason and Miles and not letting Andre Dawkins' weak perimeter defense kill you?
What about going to Singler in the post in the second half? I mean, it's rare enough for him to have a good game, and he was on fire in the first 20. What happened to that element?
What about putting the ball in Nolan's hands and forcing him to take over? Why couldn't we live and die with our best player?
Also, what was the plan on offense? Just give the ball to Kyrie and let him try to drive? Ditto for Nolan on 1 of every 4 possessions? Where was the fluidity, the motion, the organized sets? Couldn't that have helped us when we were overwhelmed?
I guess we'll never know.
This was so much like the St. John's game that I honestly wanted to puke. A team thoroughly out-played us, got a big lead, and the refs got swept up in the momentum of the crowd and ensured that Duke had no chance to come back. The crowning moment for me was when Kyle Singler played great defense on an inbound pass, Derrick Williams caught the ball and fell out of bounds, and they called a push on Singler.
Also, how many elbows is a team allowed to throw before they're called for a foul? And look, the refs were bad, but they were probably bad for both teams. We just got murdered in a 5-minute series in the second half when we really needed everything to go our way. That killed.
9. Kyrie Irving's least favorite science: Chemistry
I love when people say things like: "Don't you dare blame this on Kyrie!"
That was on twitter quite a bit last night. As though criticizing the strategy of bringing Kyrie back so soon is akin to actually getting mad at Kyrie.
Not a bit. Not even the slightest, token bit. Kyrie Irving is a great player, and I appreciate that he worked hard to get back on the team. I appreciate that he scored 28 points last night and was the best player wearing blue. I like his style, I like his spirit.
But his return did us no favors. How many assists do you think he had last night, without looking? It was 1. How many do you think he had against Michigan? 2.
Hindsight is 20/20, and I'll freely admit I kept the thoughts mostly to myself in the lead-up to Kyrie's return. I thought, as I mentioned before, that we needed another element to make us a national title contender. But now, seeing how it played out, I find myself wishing Coach K had danced with the ones that brung us. And I thought that after the Michigan game, too.
Here's my biggest regret, and the thing that'll stick in my craw for a long time: we should have won or lost that game on the back of Nolan Smith. Coach K, unwittingly, relegated him by bringing Kyrie back. That affected his game, and what we saw last night wasn't the Nolan Smith that made us burst with joy all year.
It's not fair, and it's not right. Losing stings, and we may well have lost one way or another. But this was Nolan's team.
Still, I can't be too upset.
Was it hard to lose. God, yes. I had my anger moments. I said some things to Derrick Williams that I wish I could take back. I kicked some cardboard boxes around the house when I couldn't bottle it up any more. My foot actually still kind of hurts from when I missed and kicked the wall. I even did one of those awkward slaps on the sliding glass door to the patio; the kind where you're mad enough to give it a full punch, but in the process you say to yourself, 'wait, am I really going to punch a piece of glass, risk ruining my hand and the glass itself, for this?' So you sort of stop halfway and slap it gingerly, and then get even more mad because you didn't actually let the anger out.
And let's be honest: those Arizona kids were a bunch of bitches. I will literally spend only a paragraph talking about this, because I know I'm just being bitter. But fuck Momo Jones and his chest-pounding bullshit. Fuck the entire team for whining about every call while they were up 18 with 2 minutes left and had just benefited from awful refereeing for an entire half. Fuck Derrick Williams for raising the roof for the Zona fans at the exact moment when Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, heartbroken, were getting their sad curtain call. Seriously, I usually hate when people whine and cry about the other team after a loss, but I truly thought Arizona won poorly.
Still, if you want to prevent that kind of thing, you have to win. We can hypothesize all day long about what might have happened if they played this game 1,000 times over, but guess what? They ain't gonna. They play it once, and what happened happened. For some reason, Duke has a weird proclivity to take another team's best shot. We saw it against St. John's, we saw it against Virginia Tech, we saw it against Florida St. And those shots paled in comparison to the brutal haymaker the Wildcats delivered last night.
But like I said, I'm not too upset. Coach K put it best in the post-game: "The tournament is cruel. It's an abrupt end for everybody when you don't win."
And that's what makes it great. Historically, I've had trouble enjoying the tournament after Duke loses. Not this year. I'm determined to make the most of it. I'm rooting for Florida State first, and Butler second. (No joke: I will be severely disappointed if Brad Stevens doesn't take over for Coach K when he finally retires. The man is my hero.) I want to see Kentucky give Ohio State a game tonight. I hope Carolina loses before the Final Four, but I'll just be amused if they don't, because I know Duke is better. I'm going to enjoy the hell out of the rest of this sporting event. Why? Because I'm an adult. I'm a grown-up, and I can live with this loss. I can...I can... *wipes a tear away, gathers himself courageously*...I can make lemonade with all these fucking lemons.
Every team but one goes down. Winning a national championship is all but unthinkable. Sure, you'll always be disappointed when the season ends. But the difficulty involved in surviving til the end is the main reason why you have to appreciate the other moments. The tournament was a disaster; we played horribly against Michigan and got lucky to win, and then we got steamrolled by Arizona.
But the rest of the year, my friends, was beautiful. The Kyrie days, when all of us, in the back of our minds, started dreaming of an undefeated season. The comeback against Carolina in Cameron on the night Nolan Smith made it snow. The gorgeous efficiency of a team finding its stride against N.C. State. The domination of Maryland in their College Park house of horrors. The victory against Clemson, sealing a second straight perfect season at home. Revenge against a doomed Virginia Tech.
And finally, the perfect game. The day when everything came together and the legions of powder blue across this state were forced to acknowledge what the good guys knew all along: this is one hell of a team.
When I was very young, I'd sometimes go to my mom's office after school. She had a variety of cartoons and posters on her wall, and one has always stuck with me. It was a small, one-frame comic in black-and-white that she'd cut out from a newspaper. I'm going from memory here, but in the depths of my childhood mind I see a dragon in the middle, reclined against a tree. It looks beat-up and tired, and there are sad puffs of smoke coming from its nose. A castle may or may not be in the background. Cuts and bruises adorn the dragon hide, and he looks like the saddest creature alive. But that's the key word- alive. Because all around, bits and pieces of a knight's armor are scattered. And the one thing I remember with total clarity is the caption: "Sometimes the dragon wins."
I don't think I completely understood it then, but I like to think it registered in my developing mind as some kind of message reaching back from the future, a brief wisp of an idea I'd take to heart in the years to come. Because today, it's something we all understand. We may disagree on the name of the dragon. But once in a while, man, he wins. It's no fun, but I can live with it if you can.
Some notes for this blog while I have your attention: Typically, SCSD turns to the New York Yankees when the Duke season ends. I'm going to continue blogging about the tournament until it's over this time, and the rest of the offseason will be a little different. I'm not sure exactly how much I'll stay up on Duke basketball, but for now I'm planning a minimum of one day per week. Maybe more, and I'm open to suggestions on that front. So even if you hate baseball, stick around and check in. You won't go wanting.
Thanks to everyone here and in the wider internet world for sharing the season with me. I can't imagine a better way to spend three and a half months. We'll say it one last time until the new crop takes the floor in November: go Duke!
Always, always, always, go Duke.