At the start of the season, Duke basketball was considered the prohibitive favorite to win the National Championship. The team returned their best player in junior Grayson Allen along with valuable role players Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson and added the number one recruiting class in the country. This potent mix of talent was thought to be almost unbeatable and there was talk that this Blue Devil team could rival Kentucky’s 2015 team in terms of talent.
However, almost from the start of the season everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. Highly touted freshmen Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden got injured and didn’t make their Duke debuts until December. Allen found himself at the center of controversy after he tripped an Elon player and was promptly suspended and stripped of his team captaincy. Even legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski was forced to step away from the team for a month due to back surgery.
All of these distractions contributed to an air of dysfunction around the team, one that resulted in a loss to North Carolina State for the first time in 20 years. It seemed like the Blue Devils had turned things around by winning seven in a row including a big victory over archrival North Carolina, but things seemed bleak after Duke lost three of four games to end the season. It was beginning to seem like the Blue Devils would never realize the potential that seemed so boundless at the beginning of the year.
The last season slide meant that Duke was the No. 5 seed in the ACC tournament, which was the last chance for the Blue Devils to put everything together before starting the NCAA tournament. Duke, rarely the underdog, was in an unfamiliar position where they were not considered among the favorites to take home the ACC crown. With the team lacking confidence following the tough late season losses, this trip to Brooklyn had the power to make or break the Blue Devils’ season.
Duke set out to do what no team had ever done before and win the ACC tournament as a No.5 seed, which meant winning four straight games in four straight days. Their first matchup was against Clemson, a team that had played the Blue Devils tough during the regular season. The Tigers had no answer though for Luke Kennard’s late game heroics as the sophomore knocked down two tough jumpers to seal the win.
From there, Duke progressed to play No. 10 Louisville in the quarterfinals. The Cardinals who crushed the Blue Devils during the regular season, were rested as this was their first game of the tournament. It seemed Duke’s hopes were dead when they fell behind by 12 midways through the second half, but Jayson Tatum and Kennard refused to let their team lose. The two combined for 49 points including some big threes down the stretch to ice away the game.
The road did not get any easier in the quarterfinals as the Blue Devils faced No. 6 North Carolina for the third time this season. After the teams split the first two games, there was an added air of anticipation around the rubber match. Duke once again fell behind, this time by 13 in the second half. The Blue Devils were getting demolished inside as their undersized frontline could not keep the bigger Tar Heels off the boards. However, North Carolina’s point guard Joel Berry picked up his fourth foul and was forced to sit out for a 10-minute stretch. Duke took off and outscored the Tar Heels by 15 points over that time, the highlight being a 30 second sequence where Kennard buried a three and then the much-maligned Harry Giles blocked a shot, then ran the floor for a huge alley-oop dunk. The Blue Devils never looked back and moved on to the championship game with a 10-point win.
The championship game against No. 22 Notre Dame featured yet another second half comeback, this time from an eight-point deficit. Bonzie Colson, who killed Duke all game, tied things up with two and a half minutes to go, but Tatum took over once again with an and-one dunk and Matt Jones buried a dagger three to put the Blue Devils up four with 50 seconds left. This secured Duke’s 20th ACC Tournament championship, the most all time, and officially announced to the rest of the college basketball world that the Blue Devils are a force to be reckoned with.
Duke will be the team that no one wants to play come tournament time and are finally looking like the team they were projected to be in the preseason. Tatum has emerged as an almost ungradable offensive force, capable of singlehandedly taking over games. Him and Kennard give the Blue Devils one of the best offensive duos in the country and are flanked by players like Allen and freshman Frank Jackson who are also capable of scoring in bunches. Giles is starting to look like his former self, giving Duke critical depth in the paint. All of these factors are converging to make the Blue Devils the most dangerous team in the country.
To conclude, Duke is officially back. Did you miss us, haters?