After exam break, Duke ready to show progress

Dec. 15, 2013 @ 08:30 PM

For the most part, the best college basketball program face similar challenges year in and year out.

They lose players to the NBA. They recruit top players to replace them.

And, most importantly, they play stiff competition in the season’s first two months while trying to mold a team together in preparation for conference play and the NCAA Tournament.

On Saturday night in Chapel Hill, Kentucky coach John Calipari explained what this is like after his Wildcats, a freshmen-filled, top-5 team in the preseason, suffered an 82-77 defeat at North Carolina for their third loss of the season

“Every game we play it’s a white out or a blue out or a red out,” Calipari said. “Every game. Not just this game. Every game. You knew that when you signed up for this, so you’d better get ready because it’s not changing. Our schedule doesn’t get any easier. We did this schedule because we had to find out right away what are we and where do we need to go.”

Rated No. 11 last week, Kentucky (8-3) has lost to three ranked teams – No. 5 Michigan State, No. 14 Baylor and No. 18 UNC.

Heading into a game with Gardner-Webb at Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight (7 p.m., ESPNU), No. 8 Duke (7-2) finds itself in a similar position.

While not starting multiple freshman like Kentucky, the Blue Devils do rely heavily on freshman forward Jabari Parker and redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood. Neither played in games for Duke last season, which means cohesion is an issue.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team has played well, but its losses have been to No. 13 Kansas and No. 1 Arizona.

“We had some guys just kind of standing around watching Jabari and watching Rodney,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said Sunday. “That led to us not being as cohesive as a unit and having five guys playing as one. The place where it showed up the most was on the defensive end. We were not a good defensive team in any stretch of the imagination (last month).”

Following a Dec. 3 win over Michigan, Krzyzewski discussed process and used Arizona coach Sean Miller’s Wildcats, who have a veteran backcourt, as a benchmark.

“Sean Miller, after we lost to Arizona, somebody was asking him about Jabari (Parker) and he said all good things,” Krzyzewski said. “But he made a really interesting point, and it’s kind of what I’ve been trying to tell you all, that we’re not there yet, and I don’t know when we will be there, but he said Jabari will be even better when we’re more cohesive. And his team is already cohesive. They have veterans back. We’re trying to figure that out along the way while you’re playing those teams.”

In Chapel Hill, Calipari railed against his team’s approach, which he said it based too much on individual play and not on cohesion.

“What we are right now is we’re not a good basketball team and we’re not a good team because everything is based on our individual play instead of team play,” Calipari said. “Like, we just got a great stop (so) let’s all five chest each other and go nuts. We are not close to that. It’s all based on `Did I get beat off the dribble? Did I miss a free throw? Did I miss a shot? We have got to get through this. We are what we are right now. We have got a long way to go.”

Kentucky faces arch-rival Louisville, currently ranked No. 6, on Dec. 28 before heading into Southeastern Conference play.

After facing Gardner-Webb tonight, Duke travels to New York City to play a UCLA (9-1) team on Thursday (7:30 p.m., ESPN) that could jump back into the top 25 later today. So the schedule certainly isn’t easy.

The Blue Devils struggled defensively last month, but played far better on that end in its three most-recent games. In beating Alabama 74-64, losing 72-66 to Arizona and beating Michigan 79-69, the Blue Devils have seen their opponents shoot 44.3 percent while averaging 14.7 turnovers per game.

“The best way we can become cohesive is on the defensive end,” Krzyzewski said. “And that’s what the last three ball games--I think we’re really good all three games--against Alabama, Arizona, and Michigan, all three big time names and good teams. So we’re getting there.”  

Duke inserted senior captains Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton into the starting lineup for the last three games and the improved play has been the result.

“Young players, they gauge whether they are playing well or not on offense,” Capel said. “There are so many things you can do to impact the game. If you are just thinking about offense, it’s not a bad attitude. It’s just a wrong attitude. That’s where we have grown.”

Duke has had 13 days since its last game to grow even more. The Blue Devils have two chances this week and two the following week to show their improvement before ACC play begins at Notre Dame on Jan. 4 (4 p.m., WRAL).