Letters to Coach K

By: Jamen Blake

Wow, writing this after watching the Duke-Virginia Tech game will be tough, but I’m determined to stay positive.  Duke lost to a good team on the road in front of what might have been the rowdiest and insane crowd I’ve seen all season.  That’s saying a lot considering the people at Cameron are called crazies.  Hats off to Virginia Tech, they played an incredible game and deserved that win.  Their happiness from winning outweighs my sadness from losing, so all in all the world is now a happier place.  

It has been too long my fellow Duke fans.  I have to admit, I had an article outlined before the Duke-North Carolina game but I couldn’t bring myself to post it.  There are plenty of articles complaining about Duke’s lack of defensive presence, and at that point in Duke’s season, there was very little presence.  But I’m pretty sure Coach K has been reading my letters begging him to switch to zone 100% of the time, and it has made a drastic difference.  I take full credit.

Speaking of UNC, the University of North Carolina comes to Durham on Saturday, March 3rd.  This is Duke’s chance to even the score, quite literally.  In the past 101 games, Duke and North Carolina’s total points have added up to a two-point differential between the teams in Carolina’s favor.  Carolina leads Duke with 51 victories to Duke’s 50 as well. If Duke wins by two, they will literally even the score over the past 102 games.

I can go on and on about how amazing this rivalry is by the numbers and how it is clearly the best rivalry in sports, but that post is yet to come.  Let’s cover a few points that have happened since my last post.

Bagging on Bagley and has Duke kinda figured out defense?

I’ve been asking Coach K to switch to a zone exclusively for a while now, and he finally listened.

Duke has been a zone team the past five games.  During this exclusive zone defense experiment, Duke has held opponents to fourteen points less on average than what they allowed their previous four games.  This has also been done mostly without Marvin Bagley, which in my opinion is not good.  Bagley is now back, and I wouldn’t say he brought a lot with him on the defensive end.

Aside from the Virginia Tech game, Duke held their previous four ACC opponents under 60 points, which actually registers as the most in a very long time if not ever for Duke basketball.  Like I said, this was done mostly without Bagley.  

During the Va Tech game, the obviously anti-Duke announcers were bagging on Bagley.  I shrugged this off as usual.  Duke garners more hate than any program in college athletics apart, perhaps, from Ohio State.  Needless to say, I’m used to haters hating.  But then he was called a liability by none other than Jay Williams, former point guard and national champion for Duke basketball during the halftime show.  I was shocked.

I couldn’t believe that Jay Williams would so ardently speak out against a current Duke star leading the conference in scoring and rebounding.  The kid has literally done nothing wrong…  But then I started thinking about it.  

Jay Williams is a smart guy, and he typically speaks about Duke in a very objective manner so as not to seem biased, maybe he was actually onto something.  

Bagley is a great offensive threat, but he doesn’t make himself felt on the defensive end of the floor the same way Wendell Carter Jr. does.  Also, Marvin Bagley can only go left.  Outside of watching my own gameplay from high school basketball tape, I have rarely come across someone so limited in going away from their strong hand.  Bagley very rarely passes from the block as well.  Wendell Carter Jr. will hit cutters and big men opposite him all the time, but Bagley will typically force up a shot.  Teams are beginning to game plan for him to go left, and not to pass the ball.  But that is only on offense.  After that halftime show, I actually saw him slack off on defense on multiple occasions.

Most big men are much worse than Bagley on defense so I’m not going to go as far as Jay Williams and say that Bagley is a liability, but Duke sure looked good without him.  It makes me wonder if the chemistry is better with a little less star power on the floor sometimes.

Apart from Bagley’s shortcomings beginning to leak through, Duke has looked much tougher on defense.  Against Georgia Tech, Duke began stretching that zone into a ¾ court loose diamond and one press that would trap opposing players in every corner they could.  While this did reward Duke with a few steals, it mostly slowed down their offense.  By the time the team could actually get set up and begin to run a play on offense, there were only 15-17 seconds left on the shot clock.  Duke effectively cut their productive offensive possessions in half just by moving their zone further down the court.

Along with the press, Duke’s zone has another thing going for them.  Jay Bilas (another former Duke player) pointed out during the Louisville game that by switching to a zone, Duke is forcing every team to play their second-tier offensive scheme.  Every team practices man-to-man offensive plays far more than they practice zone offense.  Zone offense is boring and requires you to be far more disciplined.  This is one of the main reasons Duke’s zone has been so effective in slowing down opponents.

Unfortunately, though, the new-look defensive Duke team has had to sacrifice offense and tempo in order to slow other teams down.  Duke has scored in the 60’s three of the past five games and only eclipsed the 80 point mark once in that stretch.  Coming from averaging in the mid 90’s for much of the season this has been a huge drop-off.  I might be asking for cake and eating it too, but Duke needs to find a way to play the style of defense they have been recently playing while also keeping up tempo on the offensive end.  They have too many scorers to put up Virginia numbers.

College Basketball’s Soul Needs Healing

Yahoo has come out with a report claiming multiple top basketball recruits and programs are guilty of illegal recruiting tactics.  Duke is included in this conversation.  Specifically, Wendell Carter Jr.’s parents sat down for dinner with an agent that spent $100 on the meal.  Technically, this is within the NCAA’s allowed expenditures a high school recruit or his family can incur.  But it still looked bad on Duke.  Duke issued a statement that they looked into the claim internally and judged that it was within the NCAA’s rules and no further action was required.  Thankfully for Duke, it looks like we’re in the clear for now.

I didn’t want to spend a bunch of time on this topic because I’m sick to the stomach every time I think about it, but I think it is too important to pass over.  With the incredible product that college basketball has on the floor right now, it is a shame to cast such a large and looming shadow over the sport.  While it might be a shame, something needs to be done.  I’m hearing reports of multiple top-level recruits accepting five and six-figure payments from agents and shoe companies urging them to go to specific schools.  With the aid of coaches, sex dorms in Louisville alongside steroids and $100,000 payments to players in Arizona have become the norm.  How did it get this far?

There are two main camps in this debate, those that want to pay players, and those that want to remove the nineteen-year-old minimum age restriction to enter the NBA.  Of course, there are a variety of middle-of-the-road options being presented such as Adam Silver’s D-League being opened to 18 year olds.  This is basically the NBA’s version of baseball’s farm system.

Lebron Jamens (James), as I like to call him, even seems to be on board with this option.  This is one of the best idealistic solutions I have heard so far.  Kids get paid for playing and the NBA doesn’t suffer underdeveloped talent earning ridiculous amounts of money.  Unfortunately, I don’t see these farm leagues being able to offer these players the publicity and pay they are apparently earning under the current system in college.  So what’s to keep them from switching?

Paying players would change the college landscape so much that I fear it could never look the same.  I would rather see the one-and-done rule abolished than to be in a cap space competition with Kentucky for who can pay Marvin Bagley the most this year.  College basketball existed and thrived without the one-and-dones and we can do it again.  I’m not sure this would fix the problem entirely, but I think it would help the sports soul.

College basketball has never been about money to the fans, the student sections, the stories, or the history.  Let’s leave that mess to the NBA.  

When I was watching the Virginia Tech vs. Duke game I saw a ravenous crowd thirsty for a victory against a Bluedevil team coming into their home with the intent to steal a win.  Once that student section kicked into gear with about four minutes left to play, Duke never stood a chance.  As a Duke fan, I actually felt 90% confident we were going to win that game until the cameras started showing the fans at that four-minute mark…that’s when I knew it was a lost cause.  

While I hate when Duke loses, I was actually happy for Virginia Tech and their fans.  Knowing from first-hand experience how incredible of a moment that was and that all who were there will always remember the time the Hokies beat the Bluedevils, I can’t hold a grudge against them.

{Quick sidebar: Buzz Williams is now my third favorite coach in college basketball.  Not only do we sweat a similar amount in stressful situations, but Buzz actually picked up the microphone halfway through through the second half and asked the crowd to quit swearing and throwing things on the court.  Mad props to that man.}

If I had the opportunity to put my vote in I would say we ditch the one-and-done and just let those guys go to the NBA.  There is too much heart in college basketball to let it rot with bribery and scandals.  I hope and pray that Adam Silver, Mark Emmert, and the college basketball community can figure something out to keep this sport moving in the right direction.

Grayson has risen from the grave

Phew, back to Duke basketball!  Grayson Allen is back ladies and gentlemen, and I expect him to be here to stay.  Grayson has had to find the balance of leading a team of freshman superstars, scoring 15-20 ppg, and also distributing to the other scorers.  In my 28 years of watching Duke basketball I have never seen so much asked out of one player on the Duke squad, and yet Grayson Allen has seemed to answer the call.

Sure there was Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, Jason Williams, Shane Battier, Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Quinn Cook, and Tyus Jones, but none of these guys had to do it alone.  These are all of the leaders from Duke’s five national championships under Coach K (Bobby and Christian won two). That is a difficult list to get on with two leaders let alone one.  Grayson Allen is posing to do it by himself.

In order for Allen to win another championship, he is going to have to do what he’s been doing without Bagley but with Bagley.  Does this mean Bagley gets less shots and points?


It is time to move past the fact that Marvin Bagley is the next NBA hall of fame player to come out of Duke.  Bagley is a great player and will continue to be one at the next level.  Grayson Allen is not so sure of himself in that regard.  His time is now.

Grayson has been creating for himself, finding his shot, and if all else fails he’s been dishing it to his fellow teammates.  If I envision this Duke team winning the title this year than this is what needs to continue happening.  There is a specific order of priority when Allen touches the ball that he needs to think through:

  1. Am I open?  If it’s questionable, can I still take this shot and make it?
  2. Ok, I’m being over-guarded on the perimeter, it’s time to drive.
  3. Shoot, I’ve been cut off by the big man in the paint.  I should look for one of my future NBA all-star big men to pass it to.

If this isn’t the mentality Grayson Allen has every single time he touches the ball then I will accept an elite eight as the max our Duke team can go.

Grayson Allen is most definitely back, but I’m nervous how far he can carry this team.  I will tell you this much, if I have to count on a freshman to make the final basket from this point in the season on, you might as well look forward to next year.


One thought on “Letters to Coach K

  1. Incredible article! I was watching the game too until I turned away. The Hokies played a hell of a game! I’m Looking forward to seeing the game on Saturday and looking forward to reading more of your posts! Check out my post sometime, I would love to go back and forth on topics concerning college b-ball. Take care!


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