The Tobacconist, Vol. 2

Fun (or “fun”) stat: Yesterday, Duke and UNC both lost at home on the same day for the first time since 1973.

Are they panicking in Chapel Hill yet? The Tar Heels lost to their little brother in their own bedroom yesterday, and there’s every reason to worry that within thirty-six hours  they’ll have lost three games in a row. On Tuesday night they play at Clemson, where the very-good Tigers are waiting to avenge so forth and so on.

Roy Williams likes to say, after losses, that he has to coach better, although he doesn’t seem to have said it after yesterday’s defeat. I’ve always understood this habitual mea culpa as his way of playing possum in front of his team so that public complaint will be fired at him rather than on his amateur athletes. An admirable gambit, but will he, you know, coach better? One minor change to his customary postgame dadgummery this season is his recent admission that, although he still doesn’t believe that he (or anyone) should have to “coach effort,” he does in fact have to do that and he is trying. But that’s not his way and never has been. The Roy Squat, which he will occasionally adopt as his team, in the throes of a tight game, drops back into defense, is a show of motivation, but it sometimes strikes me that Williams’s efforts come too late–hence his famous habit of waiting too long to call timeouts, or never calling them at all.

Of course Williams always plays a long game with the season itself. He’ll leave his team to twist in the wind on the court during any given forty minutes, and he’ll also let them take lumps throughout the months of the season as a whole. The idea seems to be to teach them to toughen themselves up, to learn their own coping techniques, and if there’s one thing you can say about his best teams, it’s that they’ve found the maturity they needed. Will this one? Cameron Johnson, the grad student, told reporters yesterday that the Tar Heels should be better than 5-4 in conference, except that they aren’t because they already lost that game to the Wolfpack: something about that comment struck me as worrisome, a sort of evasion of facts. Also worrisome was Joel Berry’s answer, when asked (after UNC’s limp loss at Virginia Tech) why the team sometimes seems to show no spark, life, effort: he had none. It might be very interesting to observe the Tar Heels during practice, or on the team bus. The problem seems like one of collective psychology, and it shows in how erratically the team plays: excellent defense followed by terrible defense; great shooting followed by terrible shooting; and so on.

Speaking of shooting, at the level of actual on-court basketball, here’s another curiosity added to the record: Williams recently said of this particular roster that it has a chance to be one of the best shooting teams he’s ever assembled. But they’re not. Carolina is 91st in the country in overall shooting percentage (Effective Field Goal percentage is a little lower). Their season three-point shooting percentage is 36.7, which is almost decent, but they’ve only shot that well once in recent weeks and just twice in nine conference games overall; most of the good outside shooting was earlier in the season (including an absurd 16-22 performance against Western Carolina in early December). It isn’t clear whether this is a streaky team or an out-of-focus one, although the latter seems likelier right now.

Duke mostly took care of the soft early portion of the schedule, squashing Pitt and Wake Forest twice each while mounting an excellent comeback win at Miami. Losing to N.C. State seems like no big embarrassment — if there’s one thing everyone might be able to agree on, it’s that Kevin Keatts is probably one of the best additions to the ACC in recent years — and Mike Krzyzewski exploited January to expand his rotation. Not so against Virginia yesterday. The Blue Devil bench played a grand total of six minutes — a national season low by any NCAA men’s basketball team, anywhere (!) — and as the pool reporter put it in the Associated Press story, “it is fair to wonder if they ran out of gas down the stretch.” Perhaps, but no one circles wagons as tightly as Krzyzewski does, and when the opponent was the only team in the conference  better than his, we saw what he really thinks his team is, at least at this point.

Duke mounted an impressive comeback against Virginia’s legendary defense. The Blue Devils got a little looser in the second half, which allowed them to get a freer offensive flow going. They also, truth be told, were the beneficiaries of the Cavaliers missing an awful lot of open shots for much of that half. But that’s basketball. Duke shot just eleven free throws and missed six of them. They also got only eleven combined points (on zero three-pointers, plus seven turnovers) from Grayson Allen and Trayvon Duval. (Duval also fell for a fairly simple deke late that resulted in the game-deciding three-pointer by Ty Jerome.) This is obviously a team that will be doing most of its damage inside, but Virginia has to be credited with keeping Duke from beating them from the perimeter.

Yes, crediting Virginia: they might be the best basketball team in the country right now (Villanova is probably a touch better); losing to them by two points is no shame, and it may help stoke Duke’s fire for a potential rematch in the ACC Tournament down the road (they don’t meet again in the regular season), and more immediately for Monday’s quick-turnaround game against Notre Dame. Duke is, despite its three losses, right where it needs to be. The team needs slightly better guard play, but their defensive efficiency keeps improving. The fun of all this is to see by how much more it will, and by when. It’s the surprises that make all of this worth watching. Nobody could have guessed that Duke, last year’s preseason No. 1, would suffer injuries to the extent that they did–including to Krzyzewski himself–or that UNC, which looked more or less like an Elite Eight-caliber team for most of the season, would somehow be the last team standing on its final Monday. Here Duke is the preseason No. 1 again. The prospects are brighter, the pressure higher, and some of the attention is already being siphoned off into next season, when Krzyzewski will bring in an even better class of freshmen, the top three in the nation and four of the top ten (or dozen, depending on whose rankings you use). With so much anticipation for so much to come, the hardest thing to do is keep one’s eyes trained on the right-now.


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