Duke basketball still seeking identity this season

The latest hiccup for Duke came a month ago when senior forward Ryan Kelly went down with a right knee injury.
The latest hiccup for Duke came a month ago when senior forward Ryan Kelly went down with a right knee injury.

If there’s anything that Seth Curry’s learned in four years at Duke, it’s that almost every plan a team makes at the start of the season will eventually go up in smoke.

And when it does, you’ve got to figure out a way to win regardless.

In the 2010-11 season, Curry’s first year on the floor after transferring from Liberty, Duke was the preseason No. 1 with big plans that centered on Kyrie Irving.


Those plans lasted all of nine games, when Irving injured a ligament in his toe. He missed the rest of the regular season and returned for the NCAA Tournament, where the Blue Devils reached the Sweet 16.

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Curry found out quickly that plans change.

“Coming into a season, you never know what’s going to happen,” Curry said. “You think you’re going to have a certain lineup or guys are going to play a certain amount of minutes, but guys can get hurt, guys can not play as well, could play better than expected.

“Coaches always tell us to be adaptable to every situation. You can never get too comfortable in a situation. Just every night out do what it takes to win.”

There were questions about Duke’s identity coming into this season. There wasn’t a high-wattage star like Irving, Austin Rivers, or Kyle Singler.


But the Blue Devils had talent. They always have talent.

“We’ve got good players,” Curry said. “Guys leave and go to the NBA early every year. But we always have good players here and we know that. We never panicked or anything like that. We know Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] is going to put us in good situations to show our abilities.”

Duke wasn’t at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason poll. Still, it surged to the No. 1 ranking by being one of the best scoring and shooting teams in the ACC and running off 15 straight wins.

The latest hiccup came a month ago when senior forward Ryan Kelly went down with a right knee injury. Without him, Duke lost by 27 at Miami on Jan. 23 (just the Blue Devils’ eighth loss of 20 or more points under Krzyzewski) and had to do some soul-searching.

Duke hasn’t lost since, and comes to Boston College Sunday as a resilient fourth-ranked team with a 20-2 record (7-2 ACC) that understands the value of a backup plan.


“It’s been tough, but it’s happened every year I’ve been here,” Curry said. “We’ve had to make adjustments. So you can never really get too comfortable with what you’re doing. You’ve got to be adaptable. We always have guys that can step in and do good things for us. It’s about just knowing what you do best as a player and trying to do that every single night. That’s what we’ve done, is try to be ourselves.”

The Blue Devils were built around Curry, Kelly, and Mason Plumlee.

When Kelly went down, the first thing Krzyzewski did was talk to the team, telling his players, “We’re not going to be the same team as we were.”

Then, he pulled Curry and Plumlee aside, telling them they have to take on even more of a leadership role.

“Teams are going to be even more focused on us every night and we’ve got to be even better and give other guys confidence,” Curry said. “That’s what we’ve tried to do, and we feel like our team over the past two weeks has raised our level.”

Duke is still searching for an identity, but that hasn’t come at the expense of winning.

“We’re trying to find ours because we had an identity before we got into conference and when we started with those three seniors,” Krzyzewski said. “I thought it was balanced, poised, we were a very difficult team to defend. We played good defense. We were hard to score against. That’s a good identity. Now we’re trying to find a new one without Ryan.”

The loss to Miami could have derailed the season. Only two top-ranked teams had ever been beaten so badly. The Blue Devils hadn’t lost that big in 19 years. They scored just 19 points in the first half. At one point the Hurricanes slapped the floor, seemingly mocking the gesture that’s become the symbol of Duke digging in on defense.

Inside the locker room, players called the loss demoralizing.

“It just shows that if we didn’t bring the right mentality and the right energy to a game how we can be exposed and how bad we can play,” Curry said. “Ever since then, we’ve focused on bringing the right amount of energy and being prepared for every single game no matter who it is. If we do that, we can beat any team in the country.”

In four games since the loss, the Blue Devils scored at least 40 points in the first half of each game. In a 98-85 win over North Carolina State on Thursday, Plumlee scored 30 points, Curry had 26, and point guard Quinn Cook had 21, the first time in 11 years Duke’s had one player score 30 and two score 20.

An alarm seemed to go off after Miami.

“I think we’ve played hard all year,” Krzyzewski said. “We had one really bad game, and that was against Miami. I think Miami had a lot to do with that. We’re going through a period of adjustment without Ryan. Those two things: a great team, Miami is playing great basketball, us not being ready to play at that level.

“I think we responded well from that. We’ve been playing really hard the whole time with our schedule. So knowing how to play hard together, that’s the key thing. I think we’re learning to do that better now with this group without Ryan.”

They’ve been consistent, Curry said, largely because they’ve adjusted.

“If you want to be a good team, be at the top of the rankings and set yourself up for the best possible situation for the Tournament, you can’t be great one night and bad another night,” Curry said. “You’ve got to be consistent, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at