DURHAM, N.C. -- This happened to Duke last season, almost the identical situation, really, when it lost consecutive games to unranked Miami and North Carolina State in January.
We all know how that story ended, with the Blue Devils cutting down the nets for Mike Krzyzewski’s fifth national title.
Duke’s 95-91 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday means a very different narrative is being scripted this season.
It’s not the team that beat Notre Dame, 90-60, in Cameron Indoor Stadium last season. It’s not the talented bunch of a year ago that had three NBA first-round draft picks. It’s not a team that will simply overwhelm its opponents.
“I’ve said this since Amile [Jefferson] got out, the margin between us winning and losing is narrow,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re a good team -- we’re not that good.”
Not that good.
It’s not a phrase normally associated with Duke. Maybe it’s time that it should be. There’s no panic emanating from Durham. Both of the ACC losses were one-possession games late. But there’s a realization of what they are and are not.
The first half of ACC play was supposed to be the easier part of the schedule. Duke’s trip to Miami on Jan. 25 is the only game against a ranked team this month. The Blue Devils have six games in their final nine against teams currently ranked in the top 25.
“Winning is difficult in this league -- and it’ll be really difficult for us -- and it has been in the last five games,” Krzyzewski said.
Last season, losses to Miami and North Carolina State showed weaknesses in Duke’s on-ball defending. Facing a big road game at Louisville, Krzyzewski temporarily abandoned his preference for man-to-man defense and played zone.
There isn’t an easy solution now.
Start with the fact that they don’t have a facilitator.
In the process of reclassifying freshman point guard Derryck Thornton, he had to take classes during the summer that delayed his arrival on campus. He was behind everyone in getting acclimated to the new system and role.
He did work his way into the starting lineup but was replaced after seven straight starts by Luke Kennard against the Irish. Thornton is still learning and no one else on the roster has the skill set of a true point guard.
That makes a difference when, instead of possibly running a defender off a screen and free-floating in half-court sets, Grayson Allen is having to handle the ball.
Duke’s frontcourt might be the thinnest in the ACC.
Senior forward Amile Jefferson has missed the past nine games with a foot injury. He was having the best season of his career, averaging 11.4 points and leading the team with 10.3 rebounds.
The Blue Devils haven’t quite made up for Jefferson’s rebounding. It was quite telling with four seconds left against Notre Dame, when the Blue Devils desperately needed the ball, but couldn’t secure the rebound and had to foul again, ultimately sealing their fate.
Senior center Marshall Plumlee has also had the best season of his career, but the Blue Devils get considerably more vulnerable without him on the floor as their only rim protector.
When freshman forward Brandon Ingram got in foul trouble against both Clemson and Notre Dame, Krzyzewski had limited options to replace him, none of whom can produce like Ingram.
They don’t have quality depth.
The Blue Devils’ roster is understandably thin with the early departures of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. Although they had the No. 1-ranked recruiting class according to ESPN's Recruiting Nation, Ingram is the only one in the freshman class playing on the level as the trio that departed.
With Jefferson sidelined, Krzyzewski has routinely only used a seven-man rotation. But it's hardly reliable.
Freshman center Chase Jeter fouled out against Clemson after playing just four minutes. It led Krzyzewski to tap seldom-used Sean Obi, who had played just 16 total minutes this season, when Ingram picked up two fouls in the first half against the Irish.
Notre Dame, which also has limited depth, outscored Duke's bench 38-2 thanks to 31 points from Bonzie Colson.
So forget about last year.
The Blue Devils may go on to win big again this season, but they won’t make it look easy.
“It’s a different year,” Krzyzewski said. “We just have to fight and keep getting better and not pay attention to anything else but try and get better.”
This is Duke now. Get used to it, people.