Blue Devils looking to fix problems

February, 16, 2009
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- The certainties from this season are gone -- save the likely top four seeds (North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pitt and Connecticut) and the national player of the year (Sooners sophomore forward Blake Griffin).

Who had Clemson losing to ACC bottom-feeder Virginia in overtime Sunday? Not Clemson, not after the Tigers proclaimed that they were in the ACC title race to stay following a win over Boston College last week.

Who had Notre Dame, which was on a losing skid that had the Irish closer to .500 overall than an NCAA berth, blowing out Louisville by 33 points last Thursday in South Bend?

Anyone out there have Florida losing to Georgia, previously winless in the SEC, last Saturday in Athens?

Probably not, but then again we shouldn't be surprised by what has transpired. Just look at Boston College and what has suddenly happened to Duke as prime examples.

BC knocked off supposedly immortal North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Jan. 4 to tip off the ACC, and then just three days later, it lost to a Harvard team that isn't in the top four in the Ivy League.

In between that win over UNC, and the Sunday night victory over Duke at Conte Forum, the Eagles have been as inconsistent as they were the week after the Tar Heels game.

Now, if BC (19-8, 7-5), can go a bare minimum 2-2 in its final four games (at Miami, Florida State, at NC State, Georgia Tech) it should make the NCAA tournament after being projected to finish 11th in the ACC preseason poll. That would be a sign to the rest of the ACC that this is a program which is going to be in the mix for years to come -- quite an accomplishment for Al Skinner and his staff. But there can't be another letdown.

"We lost to Harvard, and we can't have that kind of meltdown again,'' said Boston College sophomore Joe Trapani, a transfer from Vermont who held his own against the more highly regarded Kyle Singler. Trapani scored 20 points, converted an athletic alley-oop and grabbed seven key boards, while Singler poured in 25 points and eight boards in the 80-74 Duke loss.

"We've had some growing pains. We beat North Carolina, and we felt we were on top of the world,'' Trapani said. "All of us don't want that feeling after losing to Harvard.''

BC senior guard Tyrese Rice, who scored 21 points in the win -- including a critical late 3-pointer -- said he immediately mentioned the loss versus Harvard to the team after Sunday's win. Rice, the only senior on BC, has now knocked off UNC and Duke and is on the verge of an NCAA berth for the third time in four seasons (the Eagles floundered a year ago and missed the postseason).

Rice talked more about this in Monday's ESPNU College Basketball podcast.

The last time the Eagles were in the NCAAs was two years ago, when they were led by Jared Dudley. The NBA first-round pick, recently traded from Charlotte to Phoenix, was back in Boston for the All-Star break. He may be the first-ever active NBA player to storm the court. Sitting courtside for the game with his girlfriend, Dudley rushed the court with the students once the Eagles beat Duke for the first time since joining the ACC four seasons ago.

"We know we can do this; everybody knows we can play,'' Trapani said. "Mentally, we're a young team. This was a must-win game for us after dropping two in a row.''

Skinner wouldn't put the must-win tag on the Duke game, but he did say the Eagles had to win at least one of the three home games against Clemson, Duke and upcoming Florida State. He also hinted Sunday that the Eagles had finally found their identity with the ability to play within themselves, handle ball pressure (something they couldn't do against Clemson), get offensive rebounds and find another scorer to complement Rice, Trapani and Rakim Sanders, who didn't need to be put on the bench for not heeding the right reads against a press.

Freshman Reggie Jackson stepped into that role as another scoring option Sunday by handling Duke's pressure with poise (scored 15 points). He had a key floater in the middle of the lane by breaking Duke's 1-3-1 zone half-court trapping defense.

Another surprise was Tyler Roche, a third-year player who had seen limited contributions. He scored eight points, including two 3s, one of which gave the Eagles a four-point lead late in the game.

Duke had been up by 13 in the first half but saw its lead dwindle to five. "You've got to go into the half with a double-digit lead,'' coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That's being tough-minded.''

Duke has lost its edge, according to Krzyzewski. Save an overtime comeback against Miami, the Blue Devils could be reeling. The same team that made Xavier and Maryland look like JV squads this season (55-24 halftime lead on the Musketeers and a 41-point victory over the Terps) is wobbling at the wrong point of the season.

Clemson smacked Duke by 27 points on Feb. 4, the worst loss for the Blue Devils since a 30-point setback to UNLV in the 1990 NCAA title game. The three-point win over Miami saved face in the next game, and a runaway second half by North Carolina last Thursday wasn't anything to be embarrassed by since the Tar Heels were clicking at a better pace. But the way in which the Blue Devils lost Sunday night -- not making the right decisions down the stretch, turning the ball over immediately after a steal, shooting 3-for-16 from 3 -- has put a caution flag up.

"We got knocked back a little bit by Clemson,'' Krzyzewski said. "We fought back against Miami and played Carolina tough. But this is a tough stretch, and you can get knocked back. It happens in our league. It happens in the Big East.

"We're a very good basketball team, not a great basketball team, we've never been that. We have to remember what makes us good and what makes us good we forgot.''

Krzyzewski was extremely complimentary of Boston College and especially Rice, Trapani and Roche. But he said, and no one would debate him, that this was a "winnable game with us playing well. We didn't play winning basketball. There were a half-dozen possessions that you can't throw away.''

Splitting the 1-3-1 zone, the way BC did to get shots for Rice, Jackson and Trapani, also showed the defense was a bit of a sieve.

Krzyzewski said he's not putting anything on the players, but it's on him and his staff to be tougher-minded. Giving a team confidence at the end of the first half is one of those ways not being tough-minded can show itself on the stat sheet.

"Our team has lost its edge a bit,'' Krzyzewski said. "It happens in sports.''

Singler said the Blue Devils need to put the "foot on the pedal on teams because teams aren't going to give up.'' He and Jon Scheyer said the Blue Devils need to be the aggressor.

This is a new day, though. No one is infallible. Carolina proved that already this season. Duke (20-5, 7-4) is going through it now. Clemson saw it Sunday. Wake Forest, like BC the only team in the country to beat UNC and Duke this season, lost to ACC bottom-dwellers Georgia Tech and NC State on the road. This is the new reality of the ACC, and for that matter, the Big East. There is more of a widening middle class than a system of the wealthy and poor among the high-major conferences. The ACC has one team with two losses (North Carolina), five with four (Duke, Clemson, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Florida State) and two with five (Boston College and Maryland). At least one or more losses is forthcoming likely for everybody, save Carolina.

Scheyer, who has struggled on 3s of late (2-of-7 against Carolina and 0-of-6 against the Eagles) said "something has to change, whatever needs to happen we have to do it with more big games coming up. We've got to figure out what's happening and get it turned around.''

Duke does need to turn things around, but with games still to play against Wake Forest and Florida State at home and Maryland, Virginia Tech and North Carolina on the road (in addition to what should be a win in a nonconference game at St. John's Thursday), it is like everyone else plowing ahead toward March.

The separation of the elite has skimmed off the likely top four seeds for now. Projecting the rest is still murky for another two weeks with certainties in the NCAA tournament -- once the selections and seeds have been determined -- harder to find.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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