Duke Searching For Right Mix

There's not denying the talent in Durham, but will chemistry be the determining factor this year?

January 4, 2012: The Blue Devils take the floor for pregame warmups at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia before a game with Temple. At least some of them do.

Junior co-captain Seth Curry leaves the locker room and runs down the tunnel out onto the floor. The rest of the team stays behind, coming out of the tunnel a few moments later, fighting off smirks as they do. ESPN showed the moment on their broadcast, joking that it sometimes takes awhile to get in synch.

Was it a 12-1 team, staying loose before a road game with a prank or the sign of something more sinister lurking under the surface?

Temple gave Duke more of a test than many expected—including, as assistant Jeff Capel said in an appearance on 620 AM, some of the players.

"We approached it in a very very immature way," Capel said of the game. "We thought it would be easy, and we thought we're really good. We forget what it takes to be really good." With about five minutes remaining in the first half, Temple scored on a relatively easy trip to the basket. Junior co-captain Ryan Kelly was caught on camera arguing with freshman Austin Rivers about his positioning on defense. Rivers argued back and both players gestured and pointed to spots on the floor.

December 7, against Colorado State, Kelly defended a layup, only to have another opposing player come down the lane to dunk the missed shot. Kelly scolded point guard Tyler Thornton afterward, pointing again to a spot on the floor.

Just like the Temple pregame, there are two ways to read the incidents: Since being named captain, Kelly has worked on being more vocal on the floor, something coach Mike Krzyzewski has said is crucial to the success of the team. Was Kelly performing the sometimes unpleasant duties of a captain or were the two plays signs of discord?

Comments by two of the captains earlier this week seem to indicate that it was more than fiery leadership.

"On defense, we didn't really trust each other," Kelly said. "We needed to have each other's back and help more. Guys were being beaten off the dribble, which put the bigs in a difficult position."

"We've got to have trust," Curry said. "The guards didn't trust the bigs behind us, that they would be there to help or take a charge."

December 19, against UNC-Greensboro, Austin Rivers drove to the basket and was knocked hard to the floor. He reached for his hip and was in the process of checking that all his vital organs were still intact when his teammates surrounded him.

Miles Plumlee took one arm and Kelly the other, and the two co-captains started to pull the freshman to his feet. Rivers was still assessing himself, however, and angrily told his teammates to wait a second. Then stalked off to prepare for his free throws once regaining his footing.

In the second half of the game, Rivers was again sent to the floor, and the resulting foul triggered a TV time out. His four teammates, including Miles, trotted toward the bench, leaving Rivers laying on the floor. Mason Plumlee stopped, and looked back and forth, first at his downed teammate, then at his three retreating teammates, deciding where to go. He then returned to help Rivers up.

As any high school sophomore will testify, chemistry is a complicated subject. Basketball is an emotional game, especially the way Duke plays it. Those emotions will spill out from time to time.

Members of Duke's program often refer to themselves as a family, and anyone who spent time with their family over the holidays knows that arguments and spats are part of the territory.

This year's Duke team appears to be a particularly challenging mix of players and personalities. Consider the ingredients in the 2011-12 chemistry experiment. The team includes:

Five freshmen: A large class of newcomers means nearly half the roster isn't familiar with Duke's way of doing things. It also means they'll bring their own unique personalities to a locker room undergoing a big change from last year.

"It could be a gradual process (to make the transition), but we need it to work immediately," Kelly said. "It's not an easy experience for the freshmen."

"We as a program need to help them," Coach K pointed out on his most recent weekly TV show. "Not just the coaches but the players who have been through it before."

Role players with title rings: Several of the older Blue Devils were on the 2010 NCAA championship team. They've paid their dues and gradually taken on more of a role, which is the classic model for a college career. Now that it's their time, Rivers, a freshman, gets a starting job from day one. Coach K proclaimed him the team's one and only threat to drive and score. Later in the season, freshman Quinn Cook also entered the lineup and was praised as being the team's best playmaker.

"All the returning players were role players," Kelly said. "We were important role players, but we had main guys and had to play around them. This year, we needed to step up into those roles."

On his weekly TV show, Coach K put the onus on the juniors to make it work. "The two keys for our team this year are the evolution of the junior class and setting the standard for a big freshman class," Krzyzewski said. "If that doesn't take place, we won't be good. If it does, we can be pretty good."

Throw in the fact that two players are redshirting and the team features three actual brothers, both of which present unique challenges to a team's personality, and it appears that the team is still struggling with their chemistry.

That's not to say that knife fights are breaking out in the locker room, but grumbling, clique forming, and moping can stick a dagger of their own in a team's ability to compete.

The coaching staff has taken some drastic steps. They're playing zone on the bench, moving Capel down to the other end to make sure players are getting the right message throughout the game.

They also brought down the hammer of god after the Temple loss, putting the team through a grueling day and a half of emotional meetings and brutal practices.

"We had a good meeting as a team and hashed out our problems," Curry said. "Guys are trying to get closer friendships and get to know each other better. That pays off on the court."

After traveling halfway around the world in the summer, and to Hawaii and back at Thanksgiving, the team is still talking about building trust, finding roles, and getting to know each other.

If the coaching staff's early January fixes work out, the team chemistry, late to develop, might finally begin to have a positive reaction.

If not … Well, there's a reason chemists wear safety goggles.

The Devils Den Top Stories