Too Late For Lessons?

A young team relearned a familiar lesson regarding effort and preparedness on Friday night as Notre Dame raced out to what became an insurmountable lead against Duke. Now, as March Madness arrives, the next time these young Blue Devils fail that test, the season’s over.

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski called a timeout within the first three minutes of his team’s semifinal matchup against Notre Dame. Just 24 hours earlier the Duke coach had watched his Blue Devils deliver a knockout punch against NC State in the first four minutes. And now his team was the one on the ropes just after the opening bell.

“For about the first 24 minutes, I’m not sure I don’t know who we were coaching tonight. We weren’t talking. We weren’t doing anything. We weren’t following instructions and it was like an out of body experience.”

It was a familiar script for games in which Duke wasn’t going to in. In January against Miami and NC State, the Blue Devils were unable to match their opponents’ intensity and fell behind by double figures before attempting futile rallies. Against the Irish the Blue Devils fell behind by 17 before trailing by 15 at the half.

After what was a less than positive half-time assessment by their coach, Duke woke up and began competing - showing flashes of the brilliance that has some analysts projecting Coach K’s squad to the Final Four and beyond. Against a lesser opponent Duke probably could have completed the rally as they had done against St. John’s. But Notre Dame is one of the best 12 teams in the country, and despite fighting in the second half, Duke wasn’t playing overly well. It resulted in a fourth loss of the season.

The takeaways may be mostly negative, but there are silver linings as well. For the final 16 minutes the Blue Devils rallied and closed to within four points despite their usually stellar backcourt of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook shooting just 5-of-26 from the floor. If those two players are hitting even a passable number of the open looks, Duke may be in the championship round.

But, they didn’t and Duke isn’t. And it’s because of the way the team began the game - with a near passive indifference to the things that had made the team successful over the previous 12 games. And, now, careers are on the line as Quinn Cook will graduate and at least Jahlil Okafor will be departing early for the NBA. For Cook, the NCAA Tournament represents the only chance he has left to win a tournament of any significance after failing to win any sort of ACC Championship in four years, and being eliminated in the First Round twice in three tries. The urgency of the moment will be a topic of conversation when he team meets on Saturday.

“Hopefully, we’re still in a point in time where we can learn from this,” said Krzyzewski. “Next game we play, there is no more learning. You’ve got to do it.”

And “doing it” in March will require these Blue Devils to set the tone early and at least match their opponents’ desperation and desire. If they don’t, it’ll be a short trip on the road to the Final Four.

“We’re ready to go to war in the NCAA tournament,” said Krzyzewski of his team. “And we’ll take what the consequences are of our efforts.”

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