Suddenly, three masters must be repairmen. Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, John Calipari. They have teams to fix, and lately, it hasn’t been pretty.
Was Krzyzewski’s Duke truly just beaten by three unranked teams in a row?
Has Izzo’s Michigan State, in barely three weeks, actually gone from No. 1 in the rankings to 3-4 in the Big Ten?
Did Calipari’s Kentucky really lose to four opponents who have a combined 29 defeats, including an Auburn program it had owned 18 times in a row?
Yes, across the board. Six weeks into the season, they were Nos. 1, 4 and 7 in the Associated Press poll. Now, none are in the top 10. Much more of this, and they won’t be in the polls at all. They’ll be in the receiving votes section, along with Saint Mary’s and Arkansas Little Rock.
So three kings of Marchs have some serious work to do in January.
From Krzyzewski. ``Right now it is a cruel time. It’s a tough one.’’
From Izzo: ``There’s blood in the water right now, so the sharks are coming.’’
From Calipari: ``We’re still trying to figure it out.’’
This is when it gets fascinating, watching coaches of legendary stature dealing with woes, and flaws, and doubt, and urgency. None are alarmed, not outwardly, anyway.
Krzyzewski: ``When you lose, it makes you appreciate even more what you have done. It should make you hungrier to want to win again.’’
Izzo: ``I know how to get to this team and this team will bounce back, but it’s been shaken. There’s no question about. It should be shaken.’’
Calipari: ``I look around and I think a lot of teams are in the same boat we’re in, where you don’t have a whole lot of margin for error . . . I’m not panicked in any way. I knew going into the season this wasn’t last year’s team. I’ve said all along.’’
What, then, must be fixed? Best to look at what’s been wrong.
Start with Duke.
There is the matter of depth. Notre Dame outscored the Blue Devils 38-2 in bench points. Grayson Allen played 116 of the 120 minutes in the three defeats, Marshall Plumlee 113 of 120.
With Amile Jefferson injured, Duke is basically going with six players.
There is the matter of lack of inside muscle, minus Jefferson. Syracuse pulled down a staggering 26 offensive rebounds against Duke. The Blue Devils were outscored 45-23 in second chance points in the three losses, and outrebounded by 24.
There is the matter of no veteran point guard to make the offense hum. Last year, Duke was 31st in the nation in assists, this season it is 154th.
There is the matter of closing out tight games. The Blue Devils have played in six contests settled by single digits – and lost four of them, by a combined 13 points.
Krzyzewski believes he understands the reason for much of the above. ``Our kids have fought the whole year. They are undermanned, we are underage.’’
Next, Michigan State.
The Spartans’ staple of defense has sometimes faded. Iowa shredded them from the 3-point line, and Wisconsin kept drawing fouls long enough to build up a 29-12 gap in free throws made. Fouls were not the problem with Nebraska. Fifty percent Cornhusker shooting was.
"`We didn’t foul a lot today,’’ Izzo told reporters after the game. ``We got that because we just said, `Ole.’ We just let them drive right to the basket. I got to find a happy medium.’’
Denzel Valentine needs help, but doesn’t always get enough of it. Bryn Forbes has often been effective as the second scorer, but he was 1-for-13 his last two home games, in losses to Iowa and Nebraska.
Well, there have been big second half blues for Big Blue. The Wildcats have been outscored after halftime five of the past six games and given up an average of 40.8 second half points.
They were up 12 at Auburn before giving way, and nearly blew second half leads of 16 against Louisville and 20 against Mississippi State.
The faces have changed at Kentucky, and so has the defense. Last season, the Wildcats were first in the nation in field goal percentage defense and third in points allowed. This year, they’re 85th and 95th.
There have been the travails of vaunted freshman Skal Labissiere, who has not scored in double figures since Dec. 9, eight games ago. Also the puzzling disappearance of post players Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress, who have combined for only 17 points the past two games.
So Duke needs to get older and deeper, Michigan State more balanced and defensive, Kentucky tougher and more accustomed to what it means to be everyone’s big game. And there is little down time to get well. Duke now has three consecutive road games, Michigan State gets Maryland next, and Kentucky is at Arkansas Thursday night, with a quick turnaround for Vanderbilt Saturday.
Krzyzewski: ``As long as I am coaching I am on a continuance. What next, whether it is the end of the season or during the season. You try to pay attention to improvement and we are playing well. We are playing our hearts out and that has not been rewarded. A lot of people do not get rewarded when they play; they are doing something with all of their heart. We have been rewarded (before); that is why those banners are out there.’’
Izzo: ``I haven’t lost the team. Haven’t lost the locker room. Nobody is upset about this and that, we just got to get more guys playing a little bit better, and maybe a little bit smarter.’’
Calipari: ``Every road game for us is a Super Bowl. And the guys that have been here know it, the young guys are finding that out.
``We’ll break through at some point. I remember the team in ’13-14 (the one with 10 regular season losses). Oh, my gosh, we almost ran out of runway. And we got the plane down, and then we got in the NCAA Tournament, and we went to the final game and had a chance to win the national title. So is this team where that team was? Well, some of it is the same issues; winning time, consistency of play, toughness when we needed it. All stuff that we had to fight through.’’
Three bluebloods have several things to fight through now, and three very wise men will try to make it happen. They need to work their magic. They have before.