Usually, the Duke Blue Devils spend the winter months beating up on ACC underachievers and proving themselves in nationally-televised contests against fellow post-season powers. On-court excellence has essentially become the status quo in Durham, and for outsiders, a trip to the college hoops mecca known as Cameron Indoor Stadium is rarely a pleasant experience.
But lately, times have been a little tougher than expected for the 17th-ranked Blue Devils. The unpleasant odor of entitlement reattached itself to Duke about three seconds after guard Grayson Allen was crowned as the game’s dirtiest player. With head coach Mike Krzyzewski temporarily out of action, backup bench-boss Jeff Capel has guided Duke to an unacceptable 2-3 despite taking over a team that won 13 of its first 15 games. And most recently, Duke dropped its first home game to North Carolina State in 22 years in Monday’s 84-82 shocker.
Faithful followers of Blue Devil basketball will argue that last year’s team encountered a similar mid-winter slide. Last January, Duke suffered a five-point loss to Clemson despite strutting into South Carolina with just two losses on its resume, but that loss was just the beginning for the Blue Devils who would go on to lose each of their next two games to Notre Dame and Syracuse—both at home, before eventually losing at Miami for their fourth loss in five games.
That team reached last season’s Sweet 16 before losing to Oregon and finishing a very respectable 25-11. But Coach K’s absence, Allen’s antics, and good old fashion inconsistency have combined to sew the seeds of doubt about this season’s squad. And at 3-4 in the conference, Duke’s doubters have even dared to wonder if the Blue Devils are in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995.
After dropping consecutive contests at no.6 Florida State and 13th-ranked Louisville earlier this month, Capel was forced to stray from Coach K’s latest preferred starting five in order to avoid a third straight loss midway through last week’s badly-needed win over Miami. Ultimately, Capel’s tinkering worked, and while the Blue Devils lost their very next game to N.C. State, senior forward Amile Jefferson was confident that his team has what it’ll take to improve following Duke’s win over Miami.
“We have eight guys that can start at any point, and we have eight guys that are starters or at least see themselves that way,” said Jefferson. “That should be the beauty of our team. Once heart, effort and defense becomes who we are, we’ll skyrocket. We’ll get better really fast.”
Outside of college basketball big-shots like Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas, losing three of four and owning a record of 15-5 isn’t reason for panic. However, losses poison the brand of any program preaching perennial excellence, and Allen’s consistently questionable on-court behavior has magnified Duke’s recent difficulties while giving rival fans another reason to despise the Blue Devils.
Seemingly determined to surpass Christian Laettner as the most widely hated player in Duke’s history, Allen began his collegiate career as a high-flying scorer with decent range and an undeniable passion. As we now know, not even his offensive abilities have been enough to overshadow Allen’s well-deserved reputation as a cheap-shot artist after kicking, tripping and shoving several opponents.
In December, Allen earned an “indefinite” suspension for tripping Elon’s Steven Santa Ana, and it appeared as though Duke, and specifically Krzyzewski, had finally had enough. With several obvious incidents under his belt that both the NCAA and Duke had already let slide, Allen definitely deserved to ride the pine.
“It’s a learning experience,” Krzyzewski told listeners of The Dan Patrick Show. “I’m going to use it as that, as a teaching moment. And a teaching moment does not stop by giving one game. Or maybe that’s what it is. I don’t know that right now.”
Apparently, “indefinite” does mean only one game in Durham, and Coach K allowed Allen to return after essentially giving him a night off for the Blue Devil’s New Year’s Eve loss at Virginia Tech.
Returning Allen to the starting five may have made Krzyzewski feel more confident about leaving Capel at the controls, but lifting the suspension so quickly has only added to Allen’s reputation as a privileged player who keeps getting away with what ever he wants.
Throughout the first few months of this season, sophomore sharp-shooter Luke Kennard has replaced Allen as the team’s top offensive threat, and the play of Kennard, Jefferson, and Jason Tatum will determine Duke’s destiny—not Allen. But until either Krzyzewski, the University, or NCAA actually does something about Allen’s antics, he’ll remain the game’s most hated distraction and the Blue Devils will continue to pay the price.