As an avid fan of Duke basketball, I have been very frustrated with the play on the court, especially at Cameron Indoor Stadium this year. This year's team is not your typical Coach K team.
There was no true point guard to start with, and the Seth Curry experimentation didn't work out. Players who should be progressing seem to have regressed (Andre Dawkins).
There's no Kyrie Irving, but there certainly is a replacement with as much hype. If you scan the spectators in the game, you might think you were at an NBA All-Star Game observing Doc Rivers in the stands. Rivers' son, Austin came with a lot of hype and has to prove he is worth it.
Every team needs a star, and he's the Blue Devil star.
Up until the UNC/Duke rivalry game, I've questioned what this team's problems are and what could fix them. How can you make five guys play defense together? What has happened to the reliant three-point shooting threats?
There is no typical Duke basketball, the one that builds on leads, goes on extended runs and locks the game down in the last two minutes.
Somehow, Duke has found themselves consistently in the top-10 rankings despite their play. Just last week did they flirt with the possibility of crossing over to the 10-plus side of the rankings. Duke ranked ninth? Who would have thought it? Not I. And certainly not after some of their losses and letdowns despite victories. Last Monday, I put them at possibly being ranked in the top 15.
While it takes five players on the court playing together, it only takes one to break that up. I can't help but look at Austin Rivers and question if he's the kink in the armor.
For as good and spectacular as Rivers is, and he is, is Rivers holding this team back? Is Rivers taking away Ryan Kelly's opportunities to round out his game? Is River's blocking the Plumlees from being a presence in the paint? Is River's holding back Seth Curry's shooting? Is River's draining Andre Dawkin's confidence? Is River's putting more pressure on Quinn Cook? Is River's single-handedly putting up a dam in the river called defense? In short, is Rivers a team player?
There is no "I" in team. But watching Rivers play, one can't help but notice that once he gets the ball, seldom does anyone else get the ball. Is Rivers truly buying into Duke basketball? Is Rivers a one-man roster who fears being held back by playing within a team concept? It can be argued that he has to carry the team because, at times, no one else is producing. But why aren't they producing? Is it an evil circle of non-production because Rivers won't allow it? Or can't?
Now enter the best rivalry in college basketball, Duke against North Carolina. And add it on a hostile court. The entire game, Duke was playing from behind. Any time Duke made a three, the Tar Heels had an answer. The flow of the game seemed to be Duke only looked for a three-point basket and then would forget to play defense or not commit to it at all.
When you get to the last minutes of a game and are down by 10, it's easy to have an attitude of defeat and succumb to the loss. As a team, the Blue Devils refused to do so. Coach K refused to allow it. North Carolina didn't bet on that though.
What caused this victory tonight, other than the obvious last-second, three-point shot made by Rivers? It took determination and a never-quit attitude from everyone. And who led that attitude and finished it up? Austin Rivers—the guy I blamed for not playing within a team concept.
Without the leadership of Rivers, there was no team to put on his shoulders. He took on that burden and came through. Perhaps, that's part of the maturation process as a freshman player at Duke playing for the game's best coach. Perhaps, he realizes that at times he must lead the team and play his game but needs to allow his team to help him.
Watching the last play and trying to analyze Rivers' thought process becomes more clear. He didn't just happen to have the ball at the last second and by the luck of the draw have to shoot the desperate three. He allowed for the pressure of the game, the rivalry, Coach K, his father, Duke fans and haters and more importantly, the team, to be put on him. He gladly accepted that pressure as the individual and did what the team needed and expected him to do—put them in the best position to win the game. It just so happened that the shot he put up was a good shot that was not very well defended and could do nothing but go in.
Rivers progressed today, at the perfect time for Duke.