After competing in what may have been the best game of the NCAA Tournament, the Duke Blue Devils saw their season come to an end after dropping an 85-81 contest to the Kansas Jayhawks in the Midwest regional final on Sunday evening. No moment appeared to be more indicative of this past season than Grayson Allen‘s final shot at the end of regulation, which rolled around the rim–twice–before spinning out of the cup and sending the game into the extra period, where the Jayhawks took control.
This season was quite the roller coaster for the Blue Devils. The national championship hype train officially took off once Marvin Bagley III reclassified and committed to Duke back in August of last year. Bagley would now pair with Wendell Carter Jr. to give coach Mike Krzyzewski one of his most dominant frontcourts ever.
And indeed, Duke shot out of the gate, winning their first 11 games in a stretch that included a tough victory over then-no. 2 Michigan State as well as stunning comeback wins over Texas and Florida to capture the PK80 Classic. Bagley was already asserting himself as the most dominant player in college basketball, and Grayson Allen seemed to excel in deferring to the younger players while still showing his capacity for being a scorer as he poured in a career-high 37 points.
But the tone of the season would change drastically when the Blue Devils suffered a brutal loss at Boston College in December, as Duke allowed Golden Eagles guard Ky Bowman to go for 30 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists in a lackluster defensive performance. The trend of poor defense would continue just three games later, when the Blue Devils conceded 96 points to N.C. State and immediately fell to 1-2 in ACC play.
The typical man defense employed by Krzyzewski was simply not clicking. With a shallow roster and relative lack of confidence in the bench unit, coach K stuck to his starting rotation. But the starters were being exposed for bad rotations, which was in turn creating consistent foul trouble for Wendell Carter Jr. And so, Krzyzewski decided to make a change and employ a zone defense. The Blue Devils rattled off five straight wins, only to drop three of their next four after losing to Virginia, St. John’s and North Carolina. Krzyzewski’s young group was still learning to play together as a unit on the defensive side of the ball.
But things started to click after the loss at Chapel Hill. Despite an injury to Bagley, Duke rallied for four straight wins behind the fantastic play of Carter–who was finally earning his due as one of the best big men in the country–and Gary Trent Jr., as the oft-maligned shooting guard finally began to find his scoring touch from the perimeter.
The Blue Devils only appeared stronger once Bagley returned to the lineup, and despite bowing out of the ACC Tournament in a semifinal loss to the Tar Heels, Duke secured the no. 2 seed in the Midwest. After an easy win over Iona and a suffocating performance against Rhode Island, Duke looked like the best team in the tournament. Despite losing the rebounding battle and shooting just 20 percent from beyond the arc, the Blue Devils squeezed by Syracuse, setting them up for an Elite 8 showdown with Bill Self and the Jayhawks.
The two teams provided an instant classic, seemingly going back and forth on nearly every possession with neither team willing to give ground. But once again, it was exposed flaws in Duke’s defensive zone that allowed the Jayhawks to be so successful. Kansas guard Lagerald Vick was fantastic operating in the middle of the zone, using his athleticism and skill set to use floaters, lobs and kick-outs leading to open jumpers. And boy, did Malik Newman ever take advantage of those looks from beyond the arc, as the sophomore guard scored 32 points–including all 13 in overtime–to send the Jayhawks to the Final Four.
However, despite early championship expectations, this season should not be regarded as a failure for Duke. Remember that with four freshman starters and a lone senior (Allen) on the roster, there were going to be issues with experience and chemistry, something college basketball fans certainly saw play out all season long in Durham. The matchup against Kansas was reflective of the level of parity and quality in college basketball this season, and Duke competed right to the final whistle.
But just like Allen’s shot at the end of regulation… the Blue Devils couldn’t quite finish the job.