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Are January blues a bad sign for Duke? Mike Krzyzewski has been here before, but team is young

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This isn't the first January the Duke men's basketball team has prompted some serious head scratching.

The Blue Devils' narrow losses to Miami (Fla.) and Florida State this month pose concern about this young team's ability to be a threat in March. But it's important to note that a college basketball team's trajectory tends to be peaking this time of year. And Duke's setbacks are as much a story about the ACC – where the Seminoles (11-5) and Hurricanes (14-4) have emerged as contenders.

That schedule only gets tougher with Syracuse visiting Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday, Clemson on Tuesday and road games at Louisville and Notre Dame to close out the month.

Still, this is Duke we're talking about. The Blue Devils (14-3) aren't losing to doormat teams, and this program is still a perennial blue-blood where expectations are simply higher. That's only intensified by coach Mike Krzyzewski's curtain call on a Hall of Fame career before coach-in-waiting Jon Scheyer takes over.

It's unknown whether the stakes of this season – with players trying to send Krzyzewski out in style – will be motivating or overwhelming. So, yes, an overtime loss Tuesday to FSU and a two-point loss to Miami on Jan. 8 are worth examining.

The common culprit in both setbacks: Turnovers. Duke turned the ball over 17 times vs. the Hurricanes and 15 vs. the Seminoles. Those miscues not only cost points, they change the flow of the game and allow the opponent to dominate the tempo.

"I know the main story will be about the last minute. But to me the story of the game was our turnovers," Krzyzewski told reporters after the Blue Devils' loss to Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Blue Devils forward Paolo Banchero reacts at the end of the game against the Seminoles.
Blue Devils forward Paolo Banchero reacts at the end of the game against the Seminoles.

Turning the ball over and failing to close out a victory in the game's final minutes are signs of immaturity. Krzyzewski's main tasks now are getting this team to grow up fast and establishing a winning chemistry by balancing out star power – something he's become known for over the years. Duke lost leading scorer Matthew Hurt to the NBA heading into the season, so the Blue Devils are starting three freshmen (Paolo Banchero, A.J. Griffin and Trevor Keels), a sophomore (Mark Williams) and a junior (Wendell Moore Jr., the only upperclassman).

Krzyzewski has piloted underachieving and overachieving teams over his prolific career. Deciphering which one this group will be is a conversation that starts now. This young team, led by Banchero, started by overachieving – ascending to the No. 1 spot in the Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll in late November. But now that ACC play has started, we're seeing underachieving performancesat a time when teams are better scouted and competition gets consistently stronger.

It's unknown whether the stakes of this season – players trying to send Krzyzewski out in style – will be motivating or overwhelming.

It wouldn't be fair to say that multiple Duke teams have underachieved since the program won its fifth national title, in 2015. But there have been Krzyzewski-led teams overloaded with talent (ahem, Zion Williamson and Co. in 2018-19) with no Final Four appearances. In 2016-17, a Duke team led by Jayson Tatum lost three games in January and later exited the NCAA tournament in the second round. But in 2014-15, it was a freshmen-centric team that lost three times in January and went on to win the national championship.

“Guys didn’t just come here to play in the NCAA tournament, they came here for national championships,” associate head coach Scheyer told USA TODAY this offseason, after the Blue Devils missed March Madness for the first time since 1995. “Missing (March Madness) ... motivates our returning players, it motivates us as coaches. Sometimes, you don’t like that something challenging happens to you, but you need it to happen to you to lead to something else.”

This group's potential is high, with Banchero (18.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg) having an All-American season and Duke showing flashes of greatness on both sides of the ball; the Blue Devils rank in the top 25 of KenPom's offensive and defensive efficiency. But there will be adversity this team has to weather in a crowded ACC, starting with Keels' calf injury suffered in the Florida State game.

What really matters is how Duke uses the losses to get better. And the program just so happens to have the best coach in the sport to turn adversity into an exercise in identity-building. For one final time.

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College basketball: Duke has January blues in Coach K's final season

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