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Lacking athleticism, Duke falls in Sour 16 once again

Mar 25, 2011, 12:58 AM EDT


One of the most consuming moments in an NCAA Tournament game is the tipping point of an upset special. The favorite absorbs a few blows and either maintains its balance and provides a wire-to-wire finish with the underdog, or squabbles to the mat as the upstart prizefighter feeds off the emotion of the moment. The “This is Actually Happening” crescendo created amongst the crowd and announcers is incredible.

We got that tonight with Duke-Arizona.

But if you’re not one for poetic analogies, you could also just classify this as men beating boys, as the Wildcats throttled the Blue Devils 93-77 with one of the most impressive second-half offensive performances in recent tournament memory. It was a lesson in effective emasculation; one that may propel Arizona’s basketball program back to the forefront of college basketball for years to come.

A recurring issue with Duke players is that their often times exceptional basketball players, but comparatively marginal athletes. Tonight, we saw that glaring deficiency in Coach K’s kids, as his team unraveled at the seams in the second half during a 19-2 Wildcats run, highlighted by a handful of dunks from Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne, which will be YouTubed ad nauseum for years to come.

Duke has struggled mightily in the Sweet 16. Certainly it’s a problem few programs even have the opportunity to sniff, but for such a pristine program that measures success in Final Fours and national championships, we have a severely disconcerting issue at hand. Not only does Duke lose in the Sweet 16 on the regular, they get embarrassed in them. Surely leaving a sour taste in their fan’s mouths.

Consider that Duke has been eliminated in the Sweet 16 five times in nine years:

  • 2009: Villanova 77 – Duke 54
  • 2006: LSU 62 – Duke 54
  • 2005: Michigan State 78 – Duke 68
  • 2003: Kansas 69 – Duke 65
  • 2002: Indiana 74 – Duke 73

That is a lot. Even more bothersome if you’re a Cameron Crazie, is that the Blue Devils are only 2-5 in their last seven Sweet 16 games, a stat that reeks of everything that is not elite.

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For Arizona, they’re peaking at just the right time. Calling on a team that recently eliminated Duke in the true third round, the Wildcats are writing a similar arc to the 2005-2006 LSU Tigers. Young and ferocious, it took a few months for that Tigers team to find themselves, but they knocked off Duke and advanced to the Final Four because they were supremely athletic and had a pair of horses down low (Glen Davis, Tyrus Thomas) that could step out and pose significant match-up problems for opponents.

It’s pretty clear that the Sean Miller Era at Tucson is way ahead of schedule. I know hindsight is always 20/20, but this should have been everyone’s dark horse Final Four pick.

  1. 1historian - Mar 25, 2011 at 7:03 AM

    Barkley picked this one and stuck with it at halftime when Duke was winning

  2. reverend8 - Mar 25, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    This is a ludicrous column. Reminder to Nick: Duke won the national title last year, with a tough, non-finesse, extremely athletic team that out-played and out-worked West Virginia and Butler. They didn’t win with threes and passing; they won inside. Yes, this team was not as strong inside, and most observers realized they could be in trouble against a strong inside team, but let’s not forget two weeks ago they absolutely destroyed a supposedly more athletic UNC team in the ACC tournament.

    They lost to a very good team last night, and clearly Duke wasn’t able to re-integrate Kyrie Irving into the team this late in the year, but falling back on the old “Duke is a finesse team” thing is just laughably lazy writing. They have lost a lot in the Sweet 16 because they have gotten there a lot.

    • imamanim40 - Mar 25, 2011 at 11:49 AM

      don’t u see, reverend8? If Nick would’ve mentioned that little tidbit that Duke won it all last year, it would’ve underminded-and hence ruined-the entire basis for his misguided article

      • Nick Fasulo - Mar 25, 2011 at 12:20 PM

        you shouldn’t be reading this if you need to be reminded that duke won the national title last season.

        i mentioned that duke’s sweet 16 problems is a problem most programs would love to have.

        and, finally, the whole team-they-lost-to-went-to-the-final-four argument is silly. you win a sweet 16 game and you’re one win away from the final four. the task isn’t nearly as daunting as you pretend it to be.

    • sysi45 - Mar 25, 2011 at 1:03 PM

      If they didn’t keep getting #1 seeds (whether they are deserved or not) and playing cupcakes in the first two rounds, they wouldn’t be getting to the sweet sixteen. Yes, I do think the whole ACC has been overrated the last 10 years.

  3. reverend8 - Mar 25, 2011 at 11:47 AM

    And, to add to that, you could have pointed out that every single one of the Sweet 16 losses you highlight was to a team that made the Final Four, and two of them made the Championship Game. How is it embarrassing to lose to a Final Four team? And since when are four-point and one-point losses considered blowouts? In fact, other than the Nova game, those are all relatively close scores.

    Rather than Duke being un-athletic, isn’t it also possible they just ran into very good teams? And two NCAA championships in the past 10 years, not to mention countless ACC titles? I’d call that elite.

  4. ltjx - Mar 25, 2011 at 12:15 PM

    What an outrageously idiotic comment to say that Arizona defeating Duke, was “as men beating boys”. Was it a team of “boys” when Duke was the last teaming standing in the 2010 tournament, winning the NCAA title game less than one year ago? Or is this your snarky way of saying that Duke tends to have more white players than many of their most challenging NCAA opponents? This factor should not really matter at all, but it apparently bothers certain college basketball fans in some sort of less than fully articulated way.
    Over the previous 20 years (1991-2010) Duke has won 4 NCAA National Championships. That means reaching the very top of the ultra competitive world of NCAA Div I men’s basketball 20% of the time over a 20 year period!! Only Duke’s traditional in-state rivals, North Carolina, can come close to Duke’s record, with 3 Championships over the same 20 year period. Is this the record of “boys”??

  5. astrozac - Mar 25, 2011 at 12:25 PM

    900 wins, four national titles, a handful of All-Americans, including three superstars this year and a prohibitive favorite to win it all, yet Coach K always seems to slip up in the Sweet Sixteen to a scrub team? As noted see the above dates see 2006, 2002, and 2000(Not to mention 1986, 1999 and 2004 squandering games in the Final Four). I love Duke and Coach K, but he always seems to have his teams lose focus and lose games they shouldn’t(I realize it is part of March Madness, but he should have at least 6-7 titles) unless they have a Christian Laettner or Shane Battier type upperclassman leader who can help carry a team.

    See 2002, Duke had the triumvirate of Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavey, plus Dahntay Jones, Chris Duhon, Casey Sanders and Daniel Ewing, yet struggled similarly to Indiana and ended up losing the game because Boozer went up weak for a put back expecting a foul call on an offensive rebound and horribly missed an easy dunk…

    • ltjx - Mar 25, 2011 at 2:02 PM

      If Duke always seems to “slip up” in the Sweet 16, then so does every other team in college basketball – except that most of them never make it that far. If Duke is a failure in the Sweet 16, then perhaps you could give us one example of a team you think has performed better than Duke over the last 20 years? And I can’t wait to hear your answer!

      It’s easy to take pot shots at any athletic team. If you think that Boozer missing one dunk means anything at all about Duke as a team, that’s just trash talk with zero logic applied. And what you call “scrub” teams don’t make it to the round of 16 – if they do, then they’re no longer scrub teams (if they ever were in the first place).

      Your criticism of Duke is truly bizarre, when Duke wins 20% of the Championships over the last 20 years, but somehow you know that Duke “should have” won 6 or 7 titles! Of course 7 titles in 20 years would be 35%, or reaching #1 more than 1 out of every 3 seasons!! In NCAA basketball that’s an impossibly high standard to meet, and “failure” to do this means nothing. As with most things: good is, as good does.

      • astrozac - Mar 26, 2011 at 1:14 AM

        A lot of it is just frustration… And I do realize you can’t or more likely won’t win it every year you have a stellar team. In 2005 and 2009, they lost to the superior teams. The three years I mentioned they were underachievers while last year and 1994, I’d argue they were overachievers…

        But most schools don’t have a coach who’s been there for 30 years and on the cusp of being the winningest coach ever and a cadre of top notch intelligent players. I hate to think if Roy Williams would have been at Carolina since 1991, how many more they would have won…With the talent on the floor and Coach K’s experiences in March Madness, to me he should have won a few more over his 30 years and/or at least not have as many Sweet Sixteen meltdowns. That’s where I brought up the upperclassman leadership. It seems like the four years he’s won the title, he had upperclassmen who possessed more of a drive and will to win and would help carry the team…

        And I still stand by 2002. Carlos Boozer didn’t “miss” a dunk, he didn’t even try. If he would have went up and tried they would have won that game, in spite of how bad they played.

        Hopefully next year will be better. I’m curious if Coach K will opt for a three guard lineup(Rivers, Curry, Dawkins?) or if they’ll have someone to fill the small forward role Singler played?

  6. sedna1 - Mar 25, 2011 at 12:27 PM

    Duke was beaten by Arizona’s 60% 3 point shooting, plain and simple. It kept Arizona in the game in the first half and opened up the lanes in the second half.

    I’m a Duke fan and congratulate the Wildcats on a fantastic win. That was an impressive second half. But to say Duke lost because they lacked athleticism is ridiculous.

  7. lswingly - Mar 25, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    No athletes? Let me see Kyree Irving is widely rumored to be one and done a potential overall #1 draft choice. Next year they’re getting Doc Rivers Kid who’s supposed to be amazing. I really don’t want to run down all their “non athletes” but Duke routinely gets 2-3 McDonalds All-American’s in a recruiting class. Don’t tell me they don’t have athletes.

    Not surprisingly they are the most successful program in the country due to these insanely strong recruiting classes. Duke got beat yesterday because this year’s team is very perimeter oriented and soft up front, Arizona took advantage of that and the fact that they don’t have anyone who can remotely match up with Derrick Williams, not because they routinely lack athleticism.

  8. purdueman - Mar 25, 2011 at 2:08 PM

    I was thrilled with Arizona’s big upset last night over Duke for several reasons:

    1) We all hear so much about Duke, Duke, Duke every stinkin’ season that it’s enough to make anyone Puke!, Puke!, Puke!;

    2) I swear, every year Coach K is handed a list of the top 25 rated hi skool seniors, is given the chance to scratch off and take his pick of any three off the list, then the list is revised adding the next three rated guys to the bottom of the list before it ever gets released to the public… then Coach K. goes after even more on the list if he still has open scholarships;

    3) SI reported a while back that more than 85% of Duke’s basketball players go to the EXACT same classes and EXACT same Professors in order to stay eligible. In other words, Coach K’s pitch is “come to Duke to win a title and get a free degree!”; and

    4) I for one am sick and tired of Duke ALWAYS being projected to be a top 5 rated team every year, even before the first scrimmage has even been played.

    Buh-bye, Dukies! Buh-bye!!!

    Duke… a great name for a Great Dane!!! (LOL!)…

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