Blue Devils live up to the hype

Duke’s togetherness has columnist Daniel Carp feeling positive about the Blue Devils’ chances in the NCAA tournament.
Duke’s togetherness has columnist Daniel Carp feeling positive about the Blue Devils’ chances in the NCAA tournament.

I now understand why people tend to grow more cynical with age.

At the ripe old age of 22, I have watched freshman prodigies come and go during my four years at Duke. In 2011, a freshman named Austin Rivers joined the Blue Devils with an NBA pedigree and all the hype to match his talent. Two years later, Jabari Parker brought much of the same.

After plowing through the regular season and earning high NCAA tournament seeds, those two Duke teams combined for zero wins. So when the Blue Devils added their star-studded recruiting class of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen—their most talented recruiting class in years, if not ever—I tried to maintain a healthy level of skepticism.

Thirty-three games later, this team has me convinced.

This year’s Duke team truly has what it takes to win it all, and that isn’t talent—it’s chemistry. Austin River’s Blue Devils and Jabari Parker’s Blue Devils did not have a level of cohesiveness in the same stratosphere as Duke’s 2014-15 squad. Their teams played as a collection of individuals, but this year’s group—unselfish freshmen stars flanked by a senior captain and gritty role players—embodies head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s timeless adage of five men playing as one.

Don’t even bother calling this Jahlil Okafor’s team or Quinn Cook’s team. This year’s team plays for each other and treats everyone as equals, and it shows when they take the floor. The extra pass always gets made. Charges always get taken. A different player could beat you every night—when someone has a bad game, there’s always another player there to pick the team up. Players are just as satisfied coming off the bench as they are starting.

These are the intangibles that make the difference between good teams and great teams. The 2012-13 Blue Devils went to the Elite Eight on the backs of seniors Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly. That team probably played with a similar level of synergy that this year’s squad displays and very realistically could have made the Final Four, but didn’t have the top-to-bottom talent of a championship team. Duke very likely hasn’t had a team with this year’s combination of talent and chemistry since its three best post-1992 teams, which went to Final Fours in 1998 and 2004 and won a national championship in 2001.

Every year that I’ve been here, I’ve listened to Krzyzewski stress how important it is that his teams play “together.” This is the first time during the past four years I’ve seen that type of togetherness from a Duke team—the rest tried, but never truly achieved it.

Players talk about Duke being a brotherhood all the time. For the most part, that is true. Teams of the present constantly look for inspiration from the past, and players from the past try their best to mentor teams of the present. That is part of what makes this program special. But listen to Tyus Jones and Amile Jefferson talk about playing for their brothers, and you’ll come away believing that the bond between these Blue Devils run far deeper than the lines on a basketball court.

Just because this year’s Blue Devils are a championship-caliber team does not mean they will survive long enough to cut down the nets. March is cruel and unpredictable, and even the best-equipped teams can meet an untimely end at any moment.

Tuesday afternoon Duke met the media and vowed to play every game in this tournament like it was the team’s last. I’ll be trying to watch them the same way. Because this combination of talent, toughness and togetherness is something we might not see again for a long time.


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