I'm high in the Dean Dome, where the UNC administration keeps the students hidden. Dexter Strickland has just thrown down a disgusting dunk over a late arriving defender who, in any universe at any particular time, can only be Miles Plumlee. The girl behind me with the incredibly shrill voice is screaming defiantly in my ear. Two rows behind her, another girl can't throw a handful of popcorn at me; she's wasted her ammo on three previous attacks. The entire arena begins chanting: "A-C-C! A-C-C!" In one minute, they'll storm the floor, and Roy Williams will eventually have to get on the PA microphone to clear them. "Let's cut down these flippin' nets!" he'll quip, in the folksy style he's cultivated for an entire career. On the floor, one of the students will hold a sign saying: "He look like a rat!" It's a quote from the immortal Reggie Bullock, who, before his season-ending injury, backed up this bit of preseason insight by averaging 6.1 points per game and shooting 29% from three. I'll file out of the Dean Dome, but because I ran 6.4 miles earlier in the day and wore the wrong kind of boxers, every step will be laced with the pain of chafed thighs. I'll be walking, as my friend Nick put it, like I'm riding a pony.
On the fun scale, last night's 81-67 loss did not quite register. But it broke the shit scale.
Broadly speaking, first:
Those are two very good teams. They were probably always going to split the season series. The ACC regular season title came down to which one could avoid the most road losses. Aside from a bizarre 20-point loss to Georgia Tech, UNC pulled out the wins. They scraped by Clemson. Barnes shot them past Florida State. They squeaked by Virginia and Miami too. They had the good fortune not to play Virginia Tech or Maryland on the road, and Singleton was one when they visited Tallahassee.
Duke didn't do the job. Two close losses to FSU and Virginia Tech were the difference. Four losses is more than I could have imagined for this team in early December, but that was a very different time.
Now let's get to specifics.
Forget why we lost to UNC, though I'll talk about that in a moment. The real question is, how did we lose the ACC? Answering that question, it turns out, helps answer the Tar Heel question as well. At the risk of over-simplifying things, I think we can boil it down to three root causes.
1. Our big men can't score.
2. We lost Kyrie Irving.
3. We never expected Kyle Singler to be this bad. And we never came to terms with it.
The last one needs to be addressed. Singler followed up his 3-17 performance in the first UNC game with 3-14 last night. There were the typical array of forced turnarounds and deep fadeaways, but I'm here to tell you he had some wide open shots, too. Even those didn't fall. But we still fed him the ball, over and over, expecting different results when a year of disappointment should have taught us otherwise.
But why wouldn't we? What strange reality are we in where Singler has lost his viability as an offensive threat against tall, quick defenders? This was the Most Outstanding Player at the Final 4. This was supposedly a player of the year candidate, maybe even a lottery pick. How much time does it take for a legend to be undone?
The answer, apparently, is more than one season. Because Duke still runs its offense like the legend is intact. The stats tell us otherwise. Although he's still averaging 17.1 points per game, his points per shot (1.21) and three-point shooting percentage (33.5%) are at an all-time low. The past two years, he's averaged 2.4 assists per game. This year, he's down to 1.6. His steals are at an all-time low, his blocks have dropped by half, and he's always seemed lost in the flow of the offense.
More than anything, though, Singler's season can be defined by the big games. After all, his field goal percentage is still 42%, about the same as last year (though lower than his first two seasons). That might be the most deceptive stat of all. Let's look at the year's "tough" games (defined by facing a ranked team, losing, or winning by single digits), and see how he shot:
Kansas St.: 4-9
Michigan St.: 5-14
@Florida St.: 6-16
@St. John's: 7-17
@Virginia Tech: 6-19
That's 49-138, for a woeful 35.5%. In the four losses, that number drops to 29.7%. And when you look at the individual games, only one of them was what you'd call "good": at Maryland. He laid a varying degree of eggs in the rest, and his poor performance was a key factor especially in the Florida St. and Virginia Tech losses. If Singler shoots even moderately well in those games, we're ACC champions.
Not that he bears the brunt of the blame. And the Singler supporters will be keen to remind me that he's played great defense this season. I concede that, and I concede its value. But Duke's offensive plan included expectations that Singler has not met. It's been a record of failure that simply can't be sugar-coated or disputed. For his own sake, he probably should have turned professional last season. Opting for a fourth year has only shown any and all interested parties that he can't score against tall, quick, lanky defenders; in other words, the only kind of defender that exists at his position in the NBA. For Singler, the choice was truly not about the money, and he may live to regret that.
Let's talk about the game. I've decided to make a helpful blog chart for Coach K about our offensive possessions. I've divided it into "wasted possessions" and "possessions well-spent" for easy reading.
Like Coach K said in the post-game press conference, a 51-39 first half on the road could not end in anything but a UNC win. Here are my thoughts on the game play, keeping in mind that my analysis will be skewed by the emotional roller coaster of the rivalry.
*Ryan Kelly kind of killed us by not hitting any of those three wide open treys in the first two minutes. It would have been a great way to start, both for him and the team, and would have given us at least a fighting chance of playing with the lead. Which is absolutely crucial in a tough road game. Instead, Duke held exactly two leads: 19-18 and 21-20. Kelly finished the night 0-6 from three.
*This must have been negative selection bias, because it seemed like UNC had an offensive board on every possession. The stats say otherwise; both teams had 10. However, as the four factors chart shows, UNC's rate was higher due to their better field goal percentage:
*Yikes on UNC's effective field goal %, right? This is one reason why the loss doesn't scare me incredibly. If we played UNC 10 more times, they would probably not shoot this well again. And Duke might not shoot this poorly, although our tendency to unleash total 40-minute stink bombs this season has become worrisome.
*Hey, it turns out Ro Shiell was right! Duke needed, and did not get, a third scorer. Curry and Smith combined for 50 points, and everyone else had 17.
*Mason Plumlee should not be shooting. Really, how hard is this? How hard is it to tell him not to shoot anything but dunks or lay-ups? A couple lucky hook shots in the past two games, and all the sudden the guy thinks he's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You can even see the guard's hesitating for a moment before they feed him the ball. The thought process must go like this: "Okay, I could pass to Mason. It might even be a good idea. He could take a strong dribble, pump fake, and maybe find someone wide open for 3. Maybe he can even take it hard to the rim. Then again, I could be about to pass the ball into a black hole. This could end up in a low-percentage hook or a lower-percentage fadeaway. OH GOD, I'M GOING TO DO IT. DON'T SCREW ME, MASON! DON'T SCREW ME!"
*If we're not going to use Tyler Thornton in big games (3 minutes playing time), what's the use of using him in the unimportant ones? To punish Dawkins? To make it so Dawkins doesn't know what the hell to do when we actually need him? Nothing symbolizes this season for Young Threezy like those missed foul shots. My friend Nick turned to me after the third miss and spoke like a prophet: "And that's when Andre Dawkins decided to transfer." I tackled him down 8 rows of seats at the time, but now I have to admit he has a point.
*The battle of Barnes and Singler, a draw last time, goes definitively to the Black Falcon (18 points on 7-17 shooting). He only has one move, the step-back jumper, but somehow defenders never anticipate it. If it works, it works.
*Kendall Marshall is so good it hurts. It literally hurts me. I wake up in the morning, remember that Kendall Marshall is on UNC, and feel a shooting pain in my ribs. 11 assists, 2 turnovers, a huge momentum-killing three, a ridiculous spin move, and several space-bending passes murdered our chances. How does a freshman with seemingly meager athletic skills play the point with that combination of boldness and intelligence? He's probably the rare breed people like to call a 'natural.'
*On the flip side, dude can't play defense. For the second straight game, Seth abused him.
*Beyond Marshall, I look at John Henson as the guy who defined this game for Carolina. The stats won't necessarily show that he had a great game (although the 10 point, 12 boards double-double is pretty solid), but his high energy and the way he disrupted shot after shot helped keep the comeback out of reach. There needs to be a stat for 'altered shots.' A shot that isn't blocked, but where the shooter has to adjust the trajectory or angle so much that it has virtually no chance to go in. I understand this stat would be impossible to measure or keep, but I'm convinced Henson would lead the league.
*I don't think it made a big impact on the final outcome, but you have to laugh at the stupid fouls committed by Mason and Miles. The little reach-ins, the attempted steals, the eagerness to leave their feet for even the slightest pump-take; it all just gets to be too much. Mason's stupidity relegated him to 18 minutes of playing time, and Zeller the Flopping Robot's 7-11 performance came largely because he kept finding himself matched up with the likes of Ryan Kelly. Miles was a little better, to his credit. Both of them grabbed a good amount of rebounds, which is nice but also beside the point- nobody's ever questioned that aspect of their game. Once again, though, the heads let them down. As my stepfather used to tell me, "you can't teach brains." And as an older man on the bus ride home told me, "please keep the Plumlees coming." I had no retort.
*The highlight of my Moody Blue performance came when Duke cut it to 5 by coming out of the gate fast in the second half. I turned around to the Heels around me and shouted, "WHERE HAVE I SEEN THIS GAME BEFORE?! IT SEEMS SO FAMILIAR!" That was the second time I got popcorned.
*The highlight of my friend Jim's Moody Blue performance came before the game. Jim isn't necessarily a Duke fan, but he's not a UNC guy either. Before tip-off, he had this exchange with two Tar Heel Fans:
Heel #1: Why are you wearing a red shirt?
Jim: Because I don't care who wins.
Heel #2: Well, we better see you clapping for Carolina.
Jim: I'll clap for whoever the fuck I want.
*The lowlight of my fandom came when I arrived home to find that no less than 32 Tar Heels had re-tweeted something I wrote on February 23rd:
I may live to regret this tweet, but I don't see how UNC can beat us, even at home. They're fading while we're peaking.
Their number included some guy named "Tar Heel Wire," who is clearly the coolest cat on the internet (as it says on his twitter profile, he's "followed by thought leaders across the globe..." including CHANCELLOR HOLDEN THORP!! And Kim Jong-Il). He's been stalking me for a couple weeks now, and I thought I'd include a compilation of his compulsive replies to my tweets (keeping in mind that none of these tweets were directed his way). I'm doing it without context because I think it's even more hilarious. Also, I'm going italicize certain parts to really give it that snarky tone. Take it away, Tar Heel Wire:
-At least you're over him. /Sarcasm
-Oh, and if you need lessons on how to use twitter, we're always here for you.
-It's an honor.
-Duke fans preparing to lose?
-Love talk of Duke doing it the hard way. That's hilarious.
-A twitter tip: if you simply hit 'reply' instead of re-typing usernames, you'll actually be able to follow conversations.
-See you Saturday.
-Keep dreamin' bro.
-You guys would know.
Man, he really has the 4th-grade era insults down cold. I just got straight served by a dude who never learned to swear. I will certainly miss him.
*Finally, praise where it's due:
They did all they could. Seth kept that game reasonable and showed what I always expected- he's the kind of player who can step up anywhere, including in the bowels of the enemy. And it was fantastic to see this kind of performance after the Virginia Tech debacle, when he put just a little too much pressure on himself. It's ancient history now.
And Nolan...what can I say about Nolan? Getting to see him in person was an incredible treat, even considering the final result. I declared him my favorite Dukie this season, and Saturday's effort did nothing to change my mind. His game is incredible, and it was so, so sweet on those occasions when he silenced an entire arena with another beautiful move. He's the kind of player who can leave a fan with good memories even after a drubbing.
Carolina won the ACC regular season title. I hope we meet them on the neutral floor a week from today for the real title, but history has a way of blocking that path; in 55 years of ACC tournaments, they've met in the championship game just 9 times. But the one thing that sustains me in the aftermath of a very painful loss is this: we had the best player on the floor. Thanks again, Nolan.