Right now I feel it's like I need to relearn how to be a Duke fan. I watched college basketball before college, though it was mainly limited to March. I rooted against Carolina because I had a friend who was a typical obnoxious Tar Heel fan. By the time I knew I wanted to go to Duke, my rooting interest was clear. It helped that Williams, Battier, and Boozer brought home a title during my junior year of high school.
In the four years I attended, Duke lost eleven games. They lost exactly three home games. I saw some of the most outstanding basketball you can see at the college level, with Duke dismantling their opponents in almost every game at Cameron. This has been true of Duke teams since the 1998-99 season, but it may be no more. That's no knock against this year's very talented Duke team. Rather, it's extraordinary, the run that Duke has had over the last decade.
This season, Duke is now 18-6, and they've lost their last three games. But to this Duke fan, and to many younger fans I'm sure, it is a shock to watch what is happening this season. What it requires, I feel, is a change in my attitude as a fan. Wins are not guaranteed, nor are losses this rare shock that shakes us to the core. McRoberts and Paulus are leading a good basketball team. It is not a great basketball team, and this year's team is human. They make mistakes, but they learn from them: prior to the loss to Virginia Tech, Duke had turned the ball over in 25% or more of its possessions in six of fourteen games. Since then, they have not exceeded that mark in seven games. The individual player growth is considerable and obvious, but it is nowhere near complete. In comparison to UNC's group of freshman, Duke's young players were never rated as high as Brandon Wright and Ty Lawson; it should come as no surprise that they are further developed than Lance Thomas and Gerald Henderson.
And so this should be an exciting time to be a Duke basketball fan. Sure, the winning all the time years were great, but we should have all realized that they are fleeting. Losing to Carolina will always sting, but not every loss should come as a Stomach Punch the way that it has in the past. Screaming at a Greg Paulus turnover or a Josh McRoberts weak missed layup isn't going to accomplish much- they don't "suck," they're just not Jayson Williams and Shelden Williams, at least not yet. There is probably the tendency across Blue Devil Nation tonight that we are suddenly back in the dark days of 1996 with a poor team-- that is simply not the case. Duke lost to a better team tonight... for what it's worth, Ken Pomeroy's predictor (based on offense and defense rating) had UNC winning by two. Shots didn't fall for Duke down the stretch, and foul trouble ended up being the edge that many (including me!) predicted it would.
But, hopefully, things will turn around. The shots will start falling the way that they haven't in the last three games, and the team will surprise down the stretch, I can feel it. I don't think it's lowering expectations, I think its shifting them. It's not like this is a bad team, it's just not a championship team... yet. And so as a Duke fan it might take some adjustment to root for a team that is good, but not great- for a fan who is no longer a student and is simply a loyal fan of his alma mater, I think this adjustment can lead to even more excitement and fulfillment from each and every game.