Nolan Smith on the bench after Dukes season-ending loss to Arizona
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  • Nolan Smith on the bench after Duke’s season-ending loss to Arizona

With just under four minutes left to play in Duke’s stunning 93-77 blowout loss to Arizona last night, ending the Blue Devils’ bid to repeat as NCAA champions (they themselves are the last team to do it, nearly 20 years agoed. we meant “ACC team to do it”—sorry about that, Gators!), Kyrie Irving missed the first of two free throws. The television broadcast cut to a shot of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski looking on morosely at his team’s 17-point deficit. Krzyzewski turned to an assistant next to him on the bench, and you could clearly read his lips as he lamented, “It’s just one of those nights.” Less than two minutes later, he conceded the game, taking out seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith for the last time in their great careers and embracing them together. Over four years, those two players helped lead Duke to 125 wins and a national championship.

To understand what happened to Duke in last night’s loss needs only brief analysis. Arizona’s Derrick Williams, a “beautiful” player, as Krzyzewski later called him, whose prowess we’d all have known about beforehand if he played in an East Coast market, turned in a truly extraordinary performance, maybe the greatest of his life. He scored 32 points, had 13 rebounds, and did damage both inside and out. Williams hit five of six three-point attempts, including a ludicrous buzzer-beater to conclude his 25-point (!) first half, and also had his way with Duke’s interior defense. His two thunderous, devastating tomahawk dunks—the first on a highlight-reel follow of a teammate’s miss—showed him to be an NBA superstar in the making.

Not only did Williams beat Duke in statistically obvious ways, he contributed indirectly during the critical stretch when the Wildcats not only erased Duke’s lead but built a commanding one of their own. After Duke’s Smith hit a jumper nine seconds into the second half to give the Devils a 46-38 lead, Arizona went on a runaway-train 28-9 run until the under-12 timeout.

Williams scored only two of those 28 points. As Krzyzewski pointed out, Singler did a very good job covering Williams in the second half, holding him to seven points. But, he added, that forced Duke’s big men to cover smaller, faster Arizona players out nearer the perimeter, helping the Wildcats spread the floor and attack the lane, freer and more vulnerable with the Plumlee brothers less anchored in it. The ferocious Wildcats outrebounded Duke by an unthinkable 25-9 margin in the second half.

Also, Singler, who has struggled with his shot all season but hit two three-pointers in an early 38-second span on his way to 14 first-half points, scored just four in the second half. It’s hard not to think that the effort of guarding Williams consumed him and neutralized his offensive game after halftime.

A sad but philosophical Krzyzewski summed it after the game when he declared, quite simply, that the better team won the game—which was really its last 20 minutes.

And so, the immediate question for Duke is: Now what?

Singler and Smith are graduating, of course. There they sat in the postgame interview room, dutifully and responsibly answering the usual prefab and/or pointless questions from reporters. The look on Smith’s face—he had succumbed to tears after Krzyzewski removed him from the game with two minutes remaining—was one of stony gloom, his face a frozen monolith of unhappiness. It was about as morose as I’ve ever seen an athlete, and a healthy reminder that even the most veteran, talented college basketball player is usually just a 22-year-old kid, his emotions still just a few years removed from the highly sensitive volatility of puberty. You couldn’t help feeling terribly for him.

And that wasn’t just because Duke lost. Smith had a miserable game, the worst I can remember seeing him play. He scored just eight points on 3-14 shooting. He hit none three of his three-point shots and even missed two of his four free throws (he was an 81.3% shooter for the season). And he compounded his ineffectiveness by committing a whopping six of Duke’s 11 turnovers.

That gets us close to the heart of the matter, perhaps, and also maybe the reason why Smith’s postgame face looked, to my eyes, hardened with bitterness rather than softened by mere tears and defeat. As anyone who follows Duke knows, freshman guard Kyrie Irving returned to action in time for the NCAA tournament after missing most of the season with a toe injury. In theory and on paper, Irving’s return was a boon for Duke. In three tournament games—the first two of which saw him play only half-time, as a means of easing him back into action—Irving scored 53 points, made half of his three-point attempts, and got to the free throw line 23 times (he made 21). Against Arizona, he scored 28 points, driving the lane effectively and hitting outside shots, as well.

But—and this is more a symptom than a cause of Duke’s tournament troubles (they barely beat Michigan, remember, to advance to the second weekend)—another of Irving’s stats jumps out almost as much as his convincing point totals. In the three games, Irving, a point guard, handed out only six assists, and committed five turnovers. Both the low assist total (his three in the Arizona game tied him for the team lead with, improbably, forward Mason Plumlee) and its ratio to turnovers indicate that Irving may not have been doing enough to involve his teammates. Especially as the game wore on, it seemed that he and occasionally Smith would simply try to break down his defender one-on-one. It worked for Irving often enough, but it didn’t work for anyone else.

One can only guess how Smith felt about Irving’s sudden commandeering of the Duke helm. It was Smith, of course, who got Duke where they were this year (and, I’d argue, much of last year). He has been almost impossible to guard one-on-one this season and led the team—indeed, the entire Atlantic Coast Conference—in scoring. He also handed out over five assists per game, second in the conference only to UNC’s Kendall Marshall. He was able to do everything he did largely because he so often had the ball in his capable hands. He was Duke’s motor, steering column and gas pedal.

Krzyzewski probably had no choice but to reinsert Irving back into the rotation, and probably at point guard—Smith had plenty of experience as Jon Scheyer’s off-guard running mate before 2010-11. The excellent ESPN commentator (and former Blue Devil) Jay Bilas argued, more than once, that Duke needed Irving in order to have a shot at winning the national championship: They simply lacked the firepower without him, he claimed. Whether that’s true or not—I think it is—if perhaps the best freshman guard in the country (and, according some, possibly the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft should he choose to go pro) is on your team and healthy, can you justify not playing him for the sake of that elusive thing called “chemistry”? What is chemistry, anyway? And as this forceful article by ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan points out, “correlation does not equal causation. Just because Smith plays poorly while Irving plays well doesn’t mean the two are necessarily related.”

The results, in any case—and you can make either one—were deficient. The Duke team that squeaked past Michigan and lost to Arizona lacked the poise and the will of the one that went 27-4 in the regular season and steamrolled through the ACC Tournament, earning a No. 1 seed in the big dance. (In retrospect, they might rather have had UNC’s No. 2 seed in the East; the Tar Heels play tonight in Newark, New Jersey; Duke had to take a six-hour flight out to Arizona-friendly Anaheim, and with one less day of rest between rounds.)

Irving had a wonderful game, to be sure, but there are plenty of people who think it came at the expense of Smith’s. If nothing else, it was easy to sympathize with the notion—born of sentiment more than reason, perhaps—that Smith, who carried Duke heroically while Irving sat out for most of the year, had his rightful role as Duke’s primum mobile unjustly taken from him. Smith is too good a teammate to complain—if he indeed feels aggrieved—about that; still, the look on his face seemed, to me, to speak to more than just loss.

Irving, meanwhile, sailed against Arizona, scoring more than a third of Duke’s points, and he turned in an excellent performance on national television in prime time, his star shining nearly as brightly as Williams’. His ominous postgame comments about his future, “non-committal” as they were intended to be, suggested that he probably won’t be back at Duke next year. That makes a certain amount of sense: His entire 2010-11 season, though dictated by the chance of injury, played like one ill-suited to the college game. He dazzled from the outset, during Duke’s early-season non-conference schedule, coming up big in marquee matchups versus Kansas State and Michigan State. Then came that mysterious toe injury—its exact nature never quite explained—which sidelined him for the entire ACC regular and post-season, that winter-long grind in which college players build their NCAA cred.

That is to say that Irving seemed to skip right past the hard knocks of college, forewent his opportunity to participate in the development of team solidarity (although Krzyzewski praised Irving’s spirit while sidelined), and emerged ready for his big-time closeup and de facto NBA audition: the NCAA Tournament. His game last night, however, good as it was, wasn’t right for Duke’s needs—they were blown out despite his 28 points. To be fair, toward the end of the game he probably felt an understandable and increasingly desperate need to try to take matters into his own hands and rescue the team. But by then, it was too late.

Or maybe it was over before it started. In some ineffable way, it seemed as if this Duke team—the promising troika of Irving, Singler and Smith, with the marksman Seth Curry and the Plumlee bruisers as supporting players—was never meant to be. If, then, Irving does leave for the NBA (if he doesn’t, general surprise will probably ensue). that will put a somehow fitting end to a story that never quite unfolded. For the want of a toe…

And meanwhile, champing at the bit in the wings is Irving’s eager successor at Duke, Austin Rivers, the No. 1 guard prospect in the country. Unless Irving stays another year, of course. Then Kryzyewski will find himself, in 2011-12, managing the roles, playing time and egos of two talented guards, all over again. Let the second-guessing begin.