DURHAM, N.C. — Matthew Hurt put his hands over his head and walked off the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium with a dejected look on his face.
It’s an expression that’s been a regular fixture on this Duke team and its hall of fame coach at an arena that’s traditionally been a fortress of dominance for decades.
The Blue Devils’ 93-89 loss to Notre Dame on Tuesday night, their fourth home loss this season, was just another in a series of disappointments that has led to a sub-.500 February record for the first time in 26 years – and with a third straight defeat, it’s almost a guarantee that they’ll be watching, not playing, in the NCAA Tournament this year
“We all hate losing,” said sophomore Wendell Moore, who scored a team-high 24 points in the loss. “At this point in our season, and coach says it all the time, we have no choice but to get better.”
The focus on improvement and development of this young team has been the consistent talking point for coach Mike Krzyzewski, but it’s clear that Duke (7-8, 5-6) won’t see the payout from that work in the next month.
“Youth has to be developed, and our program, we’re not accustomed to that,” Coach K said. “And we’re not accustomed to losing. But sometimes you have to lose, take responsibility and build from it.”
It’s a hard pill to swallow for a team that began the season with high expectations and the No. 8 ranking in the Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll.
“There are times in our program that you learn to appreciate the winning that has come at such a high level and how hard losing is,” Coach K said. “We’ve got to keep appreciating what it takes to win.”
He referenced three seasons – 1982-83, 1994-95 and 2006-07 – during his postgame interview Tuesday as instances where his team underperformed but came back much stronger the next season.
Two of those said instances, in 1983 and 1995, Duke missed the NCAA tournament but posted winning records the next year. In 2007, the Blue Devils lost more than 10 games for the first time in over a decade. They finished 28-6 in 2007-08.
As hard as it is to be patient, it would be foolish not to trust Coach K’s process. Five national titles earn you a fair amount of breathing room.
“This will pay off at some point if you stay with it,” he said.
The question remains, however, which players on this current roster will be there, when and if, the tide begins to turn?
Although he’s played inconsistently – he gets a slight pass due to his nagging foot injury – freshman Jalen Johnson is gone after this year. He’s a consensus lottery pick in the 2021 NBA draft and Coach K has acknowledged that his development has been stunted while trying to play basketball through a pandemic.
It’s questionable if sophomore forward Matthew Hurt, averaging a team-high 18 points, will return as well.
“It’s really disappointing for them, for me too, but you want this to happen quicker for them than it’s happening,” Coach K said. “I’m on their side forever and we’re going to keep going and keep pushing. That’s what you should do and it’ll pay off at some time. It’s not paying off for wins right now.”
Barring a surprising run through the ACC tournament, Duke will likely miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. It’s not certain, either, that the Blue Devils will accept an invitation from the NIT. Coach K said Monday that “to plan ahead during this season is not a good idea.”
As of earlier this week, they were projected as a No. 2 seed in the NIT by dratings.com.
David Thompson is an award-winning reporter for the USA Today Network covering NC State and Duke athletics. He can be reached at email@example.com, at 828-231-1747, or on Twitter at @daveth89.