Duke found itself in a familiar position this January, looking up at the rest of the ACC.
The Blue Devils dropped two of their first three ACC games, losing at Boston College and NC State, prompting cries of “What’s wrong with Duke?” that have become as much a January tradition as cold weather and New Year’s Eve hangovers.
With a 1-2 start to ACC play, Duke has opened with a .500 or worse ACC record each of the last five seasons. The team stood at 3-4 last year, 3-3 in 2016. The 2015 title team opened ACC play at 2-2, and the 2014 squad lost two of its first three.
That’s a combined 9-13 record to open ACC play. After that? Duke went a combined 46-10 in conference the rest of the way.
The January struggles go back farther than that, however. The last time Duke was undefeated in January was 10 years ago. In the decade since then, the Blue Devils have gone 58-22 in January, a .725 winning percentage. In all other months over that span, Duke has gone 227-43 (.840).
Duke has put together a four-game win streak since the slow start — albeit a win streak aided by a pair of games against Pitt — so perhaps the answer to “What’s wrong with Duke?” is the same as it is every year: Nothing. But why do the Blue Devils seem suffer the New Year slump each season?
It’s the true road games
Duke’s nonconference schedule has long been criticized by rivals, due to coach Mike Krzyzewski’s seeming reluctance to play true road games. Krzyzewski defends the practice by pointing to the fact that Duke plays a tough nonconference schedule each year — he just prefers to face marquee foes at neutral sites, instead of on the road. After all, he points out, the NCAA tournament is played on neutral sites.
ACC regular season games, however, are not. And when the Blue Devils enter a hostile environment like NC State’s PNC Arena or travel to Notre Dame, they seem to struggle.
Duke’s two ACC losses this year both came in true road games — at Boston College and at PNC. In the three years prior, however, Duke’s 10 January losses included four home games: NC State and Notre Dame both won at Cameron, as did Miami and Syracuse.
Plus, it’s hard to make a case that Duke’s nonconference schedule failed to prepare the team for a trip to Florida State or Virginia Tech. Duke has played the No. 2 team in the nation three of the last four years, winning twice. Since the 2012-13 season, Duke has played seven top-five teams in nonconference, going 5-2. Duke has a dozen nonconference games against ranked teams over that span, an average of two a year.
It’s the freshmen
Duke has built its team around a core of one-and-done freshman stars over the past few years, and the younger a Duke team is, the bigger the January wall seems to be.
While Duke has a .725 January winning percentage over the past decade, the years when the Blue Devils are led by a one-and-done — 2012 (Austin Rivers), 2014 (Jabari Parker), 2015 (Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow), 2016 (Brandon Ingram) and 2017 (Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles) — the team is just 28-14 (.667) in January.
“For those four freshmen, who are very talented, that was their first time in an ACC game in Cameron,” Krzyzewski said after Duke’s win over Florida State this year. “When we get on a run, and that crowd goes nuts, that’s the first time they’ve had that. Being 18 and 19, you’d be dancing around out there. It would be tough after that to get on to the next play. Those are things you have to learn.”
To a man, the Duke players say that ACC play is just different.
“I’ve always heard the older guys telling me the ACC is a different season,” freshman guard Gary Trent Jr. said. “It’s hard. There are some tough teams, great players and everybody knows everybody.”
Krzyzewski talks frequently about the yearlong challenge of developing a team, and he’s more than willing to sacrifice an early-season loss for the greater good.
When he left Trevon Duval in against Florida State, despite foul troubles, Krzyzewski said, “You have to learn to play like you have no fouls and be a man. Be mature. The best way to learn is through experience. You have to use the regular season to put these guys through those situations.
“Today we were fortunate to win,” Krzyzewski added. “If we had lost, still putting them in those situations is what you have to do. You cannot practice it.”
January seems to be the time to get in that practice.