Duke finished the regular season 26-5, ranked in the top 10 in the nation and competing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Through all the success, though, something about this Blue Devil team seemed different from those of the past two years, when Duke earned a national title and two No. 1 seeds.
The 2011-12 Blue Devils were sometimes good but rarely great, and in the end their strong resume could not save them from defeat in the ACC tournament and a historic upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the hands of 15th-seeded Lehigh.
In retrospect, then, Duke’s nearly catastrophic season opener does not seem quite as shocking as it did in November. Many expected the Blue Devils’ first game to be a rout, but Duke instead faced a furious fight from Belmont, escaping thanks to a clutch 3-point basket from Andre Dawkins in the waning seconds. The opener would not be the last time that the Blue Devils struggled to put away inferior teams.
The near-disaster against the Bruins was forgotten just four days later, though, as head coach Mike Krzyzewski became the winningest coach in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball after a five-point victory over Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. While the victory was historic, it also served as a marquee victory for the Blue Devils, over the Spartan team that ended up winning the Big Ten.
“At halftime I wasn’t sure we were going to have this moment,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “We beat a really good team, and I’m glad now we can just move on.”
Duke’s success continued through the early part of what Krzyzewski repeatedly called a “hellacious” non-conference schedule. Less than a week after his milestone victory, the Blue Devils traveled to Maui and defeated Tennessee, Michigan and Kansas in consecutive days to win the Maui Invitational.
The victory over Kansas, an eventual No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, was additionally notable for the emergence of sophomore Tyler Thornton, who made two clutch 3-pointers to put Duke ahead late in the game. The defensive specialist would eventually stake a claim to the starting point guard role.
“People will say it’s a lucky shot, but I’ll say I’m lucky to have him on my team,” Krzyzewski said of Thornton after his miraculous final 3-pointer.
The fatigue of an early-season schedule that included six eventual NCAA tournament teams finally caught up with the Blue Devils in Columbus, Ohio, where Duke was blown out by a fresher Ohio State squad Nov. 29. The Blue Devils lost their next road game as well, falling to Temple in Philadelphia Jan. 4.
The cracks were beginning to show.
Doubters might have thought the two road losses portended more trouble away from Cameron, but surprisingly, this year’s Blue Devils became just the third team in school history to go unbeaten on the road in ACC play.
Instead, Duke seemed to have trouble maintaining its intensity level on its own home floor. First, the Blue Devils fell at home to Florida State and Michael Snaer’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer, and then suffered another home defeat in overtime to Miami Feb. 5, just three days before a showdown with North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
“The biggest emphasis for us was to protect our home court,” freshman Quinn Cook said following the loss to the Hurricanes. “We’ve got to get better.”
At the time, it looked like Duke’s season was on the brink of total collapse, especially as the Tar Heels built a late lead at the Dean E. Smith Center. But thanks to an epic comeback capped by Austin Rivers’ deep 3-point swish at the buzzer, the Blue Devils downed North Carolina in one of the most memorable games in the history of the rivalry.
Rivers’ shot in the face of Tar Heel center Tyler Zeller became an enduring image of Duke’s season, and the Blue Devils seemed to break out of their mid-season rough patch. They rattled off six straight victories following the win in Chapel Hill, including revenge over the Seminoles in Tallahassee. But with the ACC regular-season title on the line at Cameron Indoor Stadium Mar. 3, Duke came up short, falling behind early to North Carolina and eventually losing by 18, costing them the regular season ACC title.
“You give a team like that a 20-point lead, it’s nearly impossible to win,” Duke’s lone senior, Miles Plumlee, said after the loss. “We need to fight, like we did at times, for a whole game.”
The bad news kept coming for Duke, as third-leading scorer Ryan Kelly injured his foot in practice and was ruled unavailable for the ACC tournament. Without him, the Blue Devils struggled in their first game against Virginia Tech before falling in the semifinals to Florida State.
Where just a week earlier Duke was playing its best basketball of the season, the team was now reeling. The late-season losses cost the Blue Devils a chance at a No. 1 seed, setting the stage for the matchup with Lehigh in the NCAA tournament.
In the season’s biggest and final shock, Duke faltered against the Mountain Hawks and star guard C.J. McCollum. Despite leading at the half, the Blue Devils fell by five in one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history.
Krzyzewski was frank all season that his team had flaws and would take time to coalesce after losing a trio of stars in Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. During the season, those issues were sometimes masked by road prowess and a surprising 7-0 start, but the season’s final weeks exposed the roster’s flaws as a Duke squad reliant on its long-range shooting struggled from beyond the arc.
“We’re not a juggernaut or anything like that,” Krzyzewski said. “We have known that throughout the whole season. You have to do it pretty precise, and we just didn’t play well offensively the last few weeks of the season.”
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