The 2018-19 Duke Basketball squad entered the Maui Invitational with arguably the most amount of hype ever attributed to one college basketball team.
After destroying Kentucky in the season opener and rampaging through their first five games, coach Mike Krzyzewski and company headed to Hawaii with unprecedented media attention. From pundits saying the team might go undefeated to scouts breaking down R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish as potentially the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft, the Blue Devils had become the talk of the basketball world.
They continued to dominate the headlines after dismantling San Diego State and turning in a strong performance against eighth-ranked Auburn, setting up a championship matchup against Gonzaga. All signs seemed to point towards Duke continuing their unbeaten streak in Maui.
But the ‘Zags reminded the sports world that this is college basketball, where the unexpected should be expected and the experience often trumps young talent. They were physical defensively and methodical in their offensive sets, forcing Duke to play from behind for the entire game.
It would not be unfounded to be surprised by the loss, or to be bewildered by the lack of offensive play calling for Williamson despite his efficiency in getting to the basket. But while this sobering loss will of course sting for the Blue Devils, it may in fact be the perfect remedy to quell this “untouchable” aura that had perviously surrounded the team:
Gonzaga beats Duke … without Killian Tillie. Maybe the Blue Devils aren’t the greatest team in college basketball history after all …
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) November 22, 2018
Gonzaga served Duke with a reminder that anyone can be beaten, and–much like in the NCAA Tournament–one loss can shake up the college basketball landscape. They also served notice to the Blue Devils’ glaring weakness: poor defensive rotations that opened up the paint and allowed for straight-line drives to the basket.
And although the Blue Devils climbed back into the game, they could not capitalize on Gonzaga’s missed free throws and became one-dimensional, relying on isolation plays from R.J. Barrett despite the freshman’s inability to escape excellent help defense from Gonzaga bigs Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. Duke will not be able to blow every team they face out of the water, nor hold leads for the entirety of games. They fought back, but now the young bucks must learn how to close.
Coach K explained to Jay Bilas that the freshman “like noise,” which is natural for young players bursting onto the national scene. But noise can lead to expectations, and now Duke has to deal with the ramifications of those expectations crashing down.
How they respond in another national environment against Indiana should serve as a testament to their resolve. But there is no question that the loss to Gonzaga should serve as the wake-up call for the rest of the year.