“Duke” and “underdog” are two words usually separated by a litany of terms describing just how the favored and hated Blue Devils came to squash the hopes and dreams of the opposing team—think about the 2010 national title game against tournament sweetheart Butler.
Last week, though, something different happened, something that has been experienced by Duke basketball fans in tiny pockets of time throughout the past 35 years: Someone upstairs decided it’d be fun to delete all the words between “Duke” and “underdog” except “is the”, and for the first time in this columnist’s memory, the Blue Devils played the role of the punchy, undermanned upstart as though they’d completely forgotten about last year’s success.
To understand just how amazing the past week has been—three wins against ranked teams aside—you need only go back to last year. There were really only two times Duke played or was close to playing as an underdog in 2015—that tends to happen with a roster sporting grown men like Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor.
The first came on the road against then-undefeated Virginia. The Blue Devils were playing without Rasheed Sulaimon for the first time and the Cavaliers, as seems to be the trend for Tony Bennett squads nowadays, was among the best teams in the nation. And behind one of the many clutch performances from point guard Tyus Jones, Duke handed Virginia its first defeat—it also handed me a beautiful Sportswrap image, so thanks for that one, Tyus.
But even then, even down a man in Charlottesville, that wasn’t even the closest Duke got to being a real underdog in 2015. No, that moment came when the Blue Devils seemed poised to face then-undefeated Kentucky in the national championship game.
Of course, Wisconsin didn’t let that storyline play out and there went Duke, back to being the college basketball heavyweight waiting to take on the first-time championship challengers. And when the Blue Devils won, the talk of “Eight is enough” gently faded, giving way to the discussion of how one-and-dones now reign over the college game. Oh well, I thought, the idea of being an underdog was cute while it lasted.
And then, this year happened. More specifically, the losses happened—six, to be exact. (Seven now, but we’ll get to that.)
The ‘disappointing’ freshmen, the injuries, the North Carolina excellence, it was all almost too much to bear. In my four years here, the ACC campaign had never been so uncertain.
But that’s what made these past four games so special. The wins didn’t come easily, but they also weren’t expected. Normally, those concepts are switched—when fans show up at Cameron Indoor Stadium, they expect their Blue Devils to win. Against the Cardinals and Cavaliers, and especially against the Tar Heels on the road, fans were uneasy, to say the least.
The first two wins were inspiring—Duke deserved to beat Louisville and its wild-eyed trainer, though the sense of magic that enveloped last year’s team showed up late in the game. It’s hard to deny that the ever-so brief flash in which Derryck Thornton became the team’s clutchest and most important player didn’t send fans back to the days of Jones hitting well-guarded, off-balance baskets late in the shot clock. The Virginia game, I would argue, was not a game the Blue Devils deserved to win, but then again, neither did the Cavaliers. The difference wasn’t an extra step on a final shot or any other specific no-call, but it was becoming increasingly clear that this Duke team seemed to enjoy punching up.
The comeback win at North Carolina was special—it was also stunning, gritty and, if you’re a Tar Heel fan, incensing. But watching that game, for fans and detractors alike, was a surreal experience.
All season long, hell, even before the season even started, my friends and I marveled at North Carolina. The praise turned to jealousy as we quickly realized the 2015-16 Blue Devils were going to be very, very different from the 2014-15 version. And, after watching Brice Johnson do bad, terrible things to Florida State in a MonStar-esque 39-point, 23-rebound effort, I dreaded the upcoming Tobacco Road clash.
But Duke did what every 10-seed and higher tries to do in the NCAA tournament: the Blue Devils hung around. North Carolina led for 18:56 in the second half, keeping the lead away from Duke thanks in large part to Johnson. But then the Tar Heels ironically went away from their star forward, squandering their lead away to Grayson Allen, who, at this point, is indeed joining the ranks of the great, hated Duke players to come through Durham.
And then, as all underdog stories eventually do, Duke’s tear came to a sluggish, frustrating halt at Louisville. The Cardinals, the same ones the Blue Devils had managed to outlast just days before, won Saturday’s game simply by being able to stand longer than Duke’s depleted roster and applying the aggressive defensive pressure that a tired, depth-strapped team could only handle for so long.
But the loss was not deflating, at least not like the previous six. This loss was okay—it was accepted. Frustrating, yes, but after what Allen & Co. had just accomplished, and considering Matt Jones was sporting a smile and sweats for the whole game, the loss probably contained the most encouraging sign to come out of the past four games: The Blue Devils, after three games of playing the underdog, had used everything in the tank. Six players, fighting together as a team, not only willed their team back into the top-15, but inspired a somewhat-lethargic fanbase and gave us a brief glimpse of just how good this team can be.
And just think: If Duke can reel off three straight wins against the nation’s best without a hobbled Jones and no Amile Jefferson, what’s three more come March?