Sunday, March 6, 2011

Well, that was Difficult

Let me set the scene:

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:

Marquette: 5-13
Kansas St.: 4-9
Michigan St.: 5-14
@Maryland: 10-19
@Florida St.: 6-16
@St. John's: 7-17
UNC: 3-17
@Virginia Tech: 6-19
@UNC: 3-14

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.less than a minute ago via web

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.


  1. I really appreciate your candor when it comes to Singler. It truly is amazing how much his game has declined. Despite the decline, he is still listed as a first round pick on the mock draft boards. I don't get it, we have a history of underachieving professionals, but how could the experts not see that he has essentially been awful all but one game this year (Oregon).

    I don't blame the Plumlees........I blame coach K and the coaching staff for first recruiting them and then not making them any better. We have not had a decent big man since Shelden Williams (another NBA bust). It is sad that we cannot recruit an athletic post player. I fear next year will just produce more of the same, regardless of how well Austin Rivers plays.

    Andre Dawkins should transfer as he will get no playing time with Thornton, Rivers, Curry etc. We won't miss a beat.

    All in all I think this team demonstrates that last year was somewhat of an aberration or statistical fluke....this year is more representative of the last 5 or so years of Duke basketball.

  2. Chris Herren's SponsorMarch 6, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    What do Mason and Miles say to each other after games like this? "Good game Mase--I'd say 9 or 10 of your 42 fouls could have gone either way. Keep your head up, ya hear?"

    I think one of the coaches might have threatened R Kelly's family if he kept shooting. Early in the game, he was on pace for about an 0-128 night. I was half expecting him to do a chin-up on the rim at at TV timeout to see if that baby was regulation.

    I'm pretty sure Dead Eye Dawkins (Young Threezy to you and yours) had a lobotomy at some point this season. That would explain his wandering into the stands on offensive sets and his refusal to boxout--that Barnes dunk made me want to kill a hitchhiker.

    To Kyrie--"Get well, get well soon. We want you to get well."

  3. Let us not blame anything on Andre Dawkins. It is not his fault that the coaching staff does not give him a chance. He is a gifted shooter and not as bad a defender as you indicate. He did a solid job on Harrison Barnes when he had the chance to guard him. He is a definite threat to score each time he shoots, but you cant expect him to produce if only given 2 or 3 shots per game. Keep your head held high Andre I for one has a lot of faith in you.

  4. Anon 1, as far as the big men, I see it as a negative feedback loop. You have a few bad years, then other recruiters start tell the big men, "sure, Duke's good with guards, but they're death to big men. You'll never make it if you go to Duke." And who can Duke respond with? Boozer, 10 damn years ago. So the more we're unsuccessful, the more we suffer in the future.

    CHS, that dunk was the worst. I think part of the reason why it felt like Carolina had more offensive boards than us is that they scored on all theirs.

    Anon 3, I will agree that I liked how he harassed Barnes' dribble. The truth should start coming out on Prince Harry; he can't drive as well as everyone suspects. He's a one trick pony.


  5. By the way, that picture isn't from this season. The Smith Center jump circle is gone.

  6. I've updated with a picture that is also not from this year, but is slightly bigger.


  7. Sorry that some Carolina fans hassled's unclear from your post whether it was good-natured or not, though... If the latter, that's something I haven't seen at the Dean Dome, and it sucks. I, too, look forward to another meeting, on a neutral floor. I agree that Nolan Smith is a really great player. If I had to bet--right now--on which team will go deeper into the tournament, my money would be on Carolina...but Duke could still turn it around.

  8. I love your blogs.

  9. I love how Duke all of a sudden needs to "turn it around" and Carolina is considered cash money when 48 hours ago those sentiments would never have been expressed. One game doesn't make a whole season. Duke will be fine, relatively speaking, but in all likelihood they won't/can't win a title with this current team because they're missing the team's best player. It is what it is, we just didn't adjust expectations accordingly once Kyrie went down. Instead of national title favorite-->national long shot, we framed it as undefeated season-->national title through adversity

  10. Winston, it wasn't a big deal at all. I got surprisingly little shit compared to what I expected.

    Anon, agreed. I'd like to see how a game between these two squads on a neutral court would go down before I panic. Truth is, ACC road games are tough. I have a feeling both Duke and UNC can go deep in the tourney, but I'll disagree with Winston and say that Carolina's shooting inconsistency make them more likely to go out early. (And I know Duke has its problems too, but that's usually on the road, not a neutral floor.)


  11. How in the hell can Duke have a good bigman program when you have a midget in Wojo coachimg the bigmen ! when is Coach K going to realize that. IF I was a really good post player i wouldn't choose Duke. look at how many potential recruits we've lost over the past several years.

  12. dook is our bitch

  13. Coach K likes to cuss a lot. I have heard him. don't sit behind him if you don't like to hear cussing. I was on a plane with him one time but he did not cuss. I said "damnit" when I spilled my drink on my shirt. He looked over and smiled. as only a another cusser could smile when they hear someone else cussing but they are not cussing because they are on a plane filled with regular people. he also drank some red wine with dinner. He might be a drunk too.

  14. i wonder if Seth wishes he had gone to Virginia Tech or maybe stayed at Liberty? I asked his dad about this. I said, "Dell, what you wish Seth go to VT like?". he just looked at me. Later he had a glass of wine. he might be a drunk.

  15. So is Prince Harry's one trick hitting game winning shots? Or is it monstrous dunks that sway momentum back to UNC? Or is hitting step back 3s? Or is it his defensive tenacity which held Sunglare to 3-14 from the floor?

  16. "Ryan Kelly kind of killed us by not hitting any of those three wide open treys in the first two minutes."

    I think you miss the key point here. UNC was starting walk-ons. Singler was being guarded by 6'4" Van Hatchell. Kelly was being guarded by 6'4" DJ Johnston. From my perch high above the court in the Smith Center, I was sure that Duke would isolate Singler on the block and get automatic points.

    Instead, it's penetrate and kick to Kelly for a three from the corner. Don't get me wrong - Kelly is a good shooter, but that's a 50% shot at best. Singler posting up Van Hatchell should be automatic.

  17. Just started reading your stuff a few days ago, and I wanted to say that I'm very impressed. Your analysis is very good, and your writing is funny as hell. This Carolina fan approves.

  18. Meatcakes sent me here.

  19. I don't care for the word "Blog". Please change it to something else.

  20. Agreed on Smith; what a player. He should be on every Tar Heel's all-time dookie list with Grant Hill and Gene Banks (although I know Banks doesn't count for dook fans, because he played before GOD ALMIGHTY caused the seas to part and spat K up on the the beach in a clam shell with his (mysteriously) raven locks modestly obscuring his man parts). Your crush, on the other hand, is a floater. He is exactly the kind of floater that makes Shav (yeah, I said it) look like Moses Malone, or even that girl from Baylor who dunks.

  21. Blog is stinky like Sunglare.

  22. Sometimes I think that Coach K probably smells like ham, IMHO.

  23. A buddy of mine went to dook and met coach K out at a restaurant with family. Said that in the bathroom rat kept peeking over the urinal divider, and muttered something about Singler. Said his breath smelled like taint and whiskey. Sounds about right.

  24. Funny stuff!

    Better be careful though, you might get called into Koach's office one of these days.

  25. Singler stunk it up that night. That's what the difference was. A tall defender is all it takes to take him right out of a game. K. Marshall played above his head, perhaps. We'll see.