There have been a few constants for Duke this season. One is winning, as the No. 1 Blue Devils are 11-0. Another is Mason Plumlee, who has been Duke’s go-to guy night in and night out. And, not to be forgotten, the nightly questions about team chemistry.
After every game—every single one—there are at least two questions about Duke’s chemistry. Thursday night after Elon was no exception. When head coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked when the last time Duke had this good of chemistry this early in the year, he paused.
“Even ’10, I thought we had good chemistry, but it really got good in February,” Krzyzewski said of his most recent national championship team. “I’ll tell you what, Kyrie’s freshman year (2010-11), I thought we could maybe run the table. We had good chemistry right away with that group.”
So, Duke’s chemistry hasn’t been this good since the last time the Blue Devils were ranked No. 1, and, since we’re talking about Duke, that was just two years ago. And before that, you’d have to go back a whopping three years, and the chemistry improved right as the team improved (it was against Maryland on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010, Brian Zoubek scored 16 points and pulled down 17 rebounds in 22 minutes, and that was the start of the Blue Devils’ run to Indianapolis).
Coincidence that Duke’s chemistry has been at its best when the team has been playing the best? Doubtful. Of course, the glaring exception to this recent timeline is the 2011-12 season.
The easy, common answer to why Duke struggled (when compared to historical Duke standards) is because Austin Rivers was a team cancer. In my opinion, this theory is more wrong than it is right.
Is Duke better this year without Rivers, the best player from last year’s team? Yes, undeniably so. Did Rivers look to get his teammates involved often? Not really, as evidenced by the fact that he averaged 2.1 assists per game. But is he most to blame for Duke’s season ending without an NCAA Tournament win for only the second time since 1996? No.
The main reason the Blue Devils struggled last year was because they did not play good defense (more on that here). That aside, to entirely blame one freshman for a team’s worth of bad chemistry is ridiculous. Teams that have great chemistry—like this one—start building that from the beginning. And it starts with seniors setting the tone.
“The first time I stepped foot on campus this summer, these guys welcomed me with open arms and took me under their wing,” Rasheed Sulaimon said of Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. “Really, we’ve just grown so close together as a unit. We look at each other literally as brothers. That’s definitely translated onto the court. We’re going to war every time we play, and you never want to let your brother down.”
So the initiative to fix the team chemistry began with the seniors, as it should. Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson were indoctrinated into the Duke Way, and, so far, that’s paid off on the court.
“With this team, the focus has been winning ever since this summer in pick-up,” Plumlee said. “It wasn’t about who was scoring in pick-up; it was about which team won. Even when you’re talking trash to each other, it’s not about, ‘I had this many points.’ It’s about, ‘My team beat your team.’ That’s carried over from the summer to now, and I think it’s clear when you watch us play that our chemistry is a lot better.”
Indeed, that’s clear. And it’s better because the seniors took control long before this batch of heralded freshmen ever arrived on campus.