Rodney Hood rallies Duke troops for No. 1 Syracuse

Feb. 21, 2014 @ 10:36 PM

Duke’s basketball team met with Blue Devil coaches Friday at the nexus of a tight preparation window.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the Blue Devils saw an 11-point, second-half lead disappear in a 74-66 loss at rival North Carolina.

In a little more than 24 hours, No. 5 Duke would take the court against No. 1 Syracuse, the only other team to beat the Blue Devils in their last 11 games.

As a team captain, Rodney Hood listened intently to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s words. Duke (21-6, 10-4 in ACC) has four regular-season games left before next month’s ACC Tournament, starting with Syracuse tonight (7 p.m., ESPN).

“It’s refocus time,” Hood said. “Just looking back on the whole season. The times we’ve played together we’ve been a great team. The times we haven’t, we’ve been in position to lose games.

“It definitely weighs on my mind. Being a captain and a leader of this team, if we lose I feel like it’s my blame. If we win, it’s everybody’s win.”

A sophomore who sat out last season following his transfer from Mississippi State, Hood has been one of Duke’s most consistent scorers this season. He has reached double figures in all but four games and averages 16.2 points per game.

He’s in the top 10 in the ACC in scoring, field goal percentage (47.7, 3-point field goal percentage (44.9) and free throw percentage (83.7).

Still, the smooth 6-8 swing man from Meridian, Miss., strives to deliver more.

No, he’s not thinking about his last game against Syracuse on Feb. 1. That night at the Carrier Dome, Hood fought through foul trouble to score 14 points.

But his last shot attempt, with 13 seconds left in overtime and the Orange leading 88-87, went awry.

Hood drove through the heart of the Syracuse zone and attempted to slam home two points that would have put Duke in front. Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas leaped to swat the ball away. Christmas’ hand made contact with the ball and his arm clipped Hood’s near Hood’s left shoulder.

No foul was called, the Orange won and Hood had missed a chance at a signature moment.

While many Duke fans had trouble accepting the non-call, Hood slept well.

“I can live with Xs and Os basketball plays and things like that,” he said. “With me, when I say let team down it’s missing an extra rebound or not speaking up in a huddle when I feel like the team is relaxing a little bit. Going in for a dunk at the end of the game or missing a last-second shot, I can live with that.”

What he can’t live with is the Blue Devils not playing their best, not possessing the drive and fight they showed that night in Syracuse in pushing the Orange to the brink of defeat.

That’s what Krzyzewski said dogged the Blue Devils in Thursday night’s loss at UNC. Hood feels it’s his job as the captain who sees the most playing time, to remedy that problem and do it quickly.

“In all six games we lost this year we were in position to win in the last 10 minutes of the game,” Hood said. “In all those games we were in position to win. Us maturing is knowing how to extend leads and keep leads and keep fighting for 40 minutes.”

Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski said the newness of that job is a factor in Hood’s growth. As a freshman at Mississippi State in 2011-12, he was a secondary player “Starting out this season I didn’t know how I was going to play just because it was stepping up a level from where I was at Mississippi State,” Hood said.

Wojciechowski sees Hood making progress with a learning curve that’s still on an upswing.

“He’s the (captain) who has played the most and is in position to make big-time plays,” Wojciechowski said. “That’s a responsibility he’s never had before. He’s got a lot of big plays ahead of him.”

Hood went so far as to say that the Blue Devils are at a “crisis” stage following the UNC loss. Duke hasn’t lost back-to-back games since March 2012 when it lost to Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals and Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament.

Expectations at Duke, of course, call for far more successful postseasons than that team two years ago delivered.

Hood said this year’s team, with nine wins in 10 games prior to the UNC loss, is close to being ready to deliver that success. But close isn’t good enough.

“We were headed in that direction,” Hood said. “Last night was a setback and proves that we are probably not ready right now. But time is running out. The season is about over with. These games — you lose one and you are out of the ACC Tournament, you lose one and you are out of the NCAA Tournament. So it’s time to man up. Everybody has got to be ready. The season is on the line.”