This season was the roller coaster season of roller coaster seasons for Duke basketball. The team went from extreme highs, like knocking off North Carolina and winning the ACC Tournament, to extreme lows, like losing at home to North Carolina State for the first time in 20 years and now having the season end with an upset loss to South Carolina.
It seemed like the Blue Devils had started to figure things out towards the end of the season though as they ripped off four wins in four days, including three over ranked teams, to win the ACC Tournament. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this run was Duke flourishing offensively as freshman Frank Jackson was elevated to the starting lineup and sparkplug Grayson Allen found a new role as a sixth man off the bench.
This new formula seemed to solve the defensive issues that had plagued the Blue Devils all season by giving them another tough perimeter defender to help shut down opposing backcourts. Duke was awarded a two seed in the NCAA Tournament and coming in were a popular pick to win it all even though they were in the same region as top overall seed and defending champion Villanova.
Things got even better for the Blue Devils when Villanova was toppled Saturday afternoon by Wisconsin, which opened up a clear path to the Final Four and championship contention. Duke had rolled in its opening round game against 15th seeded Troy and now faced a matchup with South Carolina, a tough defensive team, but one that the Blue Devils were expected to beat easily.
Nobody told the Gamecocks that though and Duke and the rest of America were in for a surprise Sunday night.
The first half went similarly to how most thought the game would play out. The Blue Devils took a seven-point lead into the locker room and their defensive developments were in full effect as South Carolina only shot 20% from the field in the first half. But, Duke could never pull away and the Gamecocks’ tough defense kept them in the game.
The second half was an entirely different story as South Carolina came out on fire and never looked back. The defensive problems that had hurt the Blue Devils earlier in the year came back in full force. SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell was unguardable, using powerful drives to the basket to either score or get fouled. Senior Matt Jones, who had been Duke’s rock all season as a consistent, steadying presence was powerless to stop him as Thornwell racked up 24 points.
The Blue Devils’ second half defense was abysmal as they gave up 65 points, the most ever given up in a half under Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski in his 36 seasons. They had no answers for the Gamecocks’ ball movement and physical play as South Carolina was simply the stronger and better team.
This loss represents a massive failure on the part of the Duke basketball program. This team came into the season as the consensus No. 1 team and were expected to coast to a national championship. The Blue Devil roster has nine McDonald’s All American players and any team with that level of talent has no excuses when it comes to performance. Duke did have injury troubles, but to go from the end of the year when it seemed like everything was clicking to be the victim of a colossal upset, is a damning failure.
The Blue Devils will undoubtedly regroup and some players will be lost to either the NBA or graduation and new ones will fill their shoes, but this season is the one that got away. Anytime you have a team this good and fail to do something special with it, it nags at you and I expect this season will nag at Krzyzewski for a long time.