Throughout this tumultuous regular season, through all the ups and downs, there has been one question that I cannot get out of my head—one that, before the season, I never really thought would need to be asked.
Is Duke good? Like legitimately good, a national championship contender?
By now, it is no secret that the Blue Devils failed to meet the expectations that were, perhaps unfairly, set for them in October. Eight regular-season losses were nearly unthinkable for a team that opened the season as 9-2 favorites to win the national title, with a host of talented freshmen arriving to supplement a strong core that featured a National Player of the Year frontrunner in Grayson Allen.
And yet, right from the beginning of the season, something just seemed a little… off.
On one hand, Duke losing at the buzzer to title-contender Kansas in November without three of those freshmen—Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, each of whom were expected to play a major role—is nothing to be ashamed of. But even then, the Blue Devils were pretty clearly outplayed by the Jayhawks and only a fervent late-game scoring spree from Frank Jackson kept the outcome close.
National championship-caliber teams routinely dominate inferior opponents, and rightly or wrongly, that was the standard I held Duke to. At the end of nonconference play, the Blue Devils were still far below that threshold, and close games against the likes of Tennessee State and Elon made it particularly clear that Duke was nowhere close to the team it was supposed to be.
But still, the Blue Devils were not exactly bad, either. A convincing victory against Florida—now a potential top-four seed in the NCAA tournament—showed that the Blue Devils could easily handle quality opponents, a dangerous flash of what they could be capable of. At 12-1, Duke passed the resume test, if not the eye test. Luke Kennard was playing better than anyone had a right to expect, and, after all, Tatum, Giles and Bolden were still very much getting their legs under them after late starts to their college careers.
Then came the road debacle at Virginia Tech—arguably Duke’s worst game of the season. With Allen suspended, the Blue Devils looked listless and disjointed on both ends of the floor as the Hokies romped and gave Duke’s newcomers a rude awakening to ACC play.
Those who, like myself, had questioned the Blue Devils’ sluggishness during nonconference play were, for the moment, vindicated. It was clear then, and even more so after three additional January losses, that the expectations for Duke needed to be amended. A cakewalk to the Final Four was out of the question, and integrating the freshmen was proving to be no simple task.
Even as the team made strides during conference play, some of the rookies were stuck taking baby steps. Bolden and Giles combined to score double-digits just twice, and Krzyzewski has made a habit of keeping them both securely on the bench during second halves, trusting only six players in crunch time. The overwhelming depth this team was supposed to have simply does not exist as the postseason begins.
But once Krzyzewski returned from back surgery and the roster was healthy at last, the Blue Devils started piling up wins. Duke rattled off seven in a row, knocking off three ranked teams in Notre Dame, North Carolina and Virginia, and it finally looked as if all the pieces were fitting together.
The offense was clicking—Tatum and Allen began to figure out when to defer to teammates and when to look for shots themselves. Jackson’s continued growth as a sparkplug off the bench gave Duke’s offense another element, and Kennard cemented himself as one of the most efficient scorers in the country.
However, the roller coaster continued. The Blue Devils seemed to regress in the last two weeks, dropping three of four to close out the regular season. In classic tantalizing fashion, Duke’s one win in that stretch was a relatively stress-free victory against then-No. 15 Florida State.
All of this uncertainty and inconsistency manifested itself perfectly Saturday at the Dean Dome. In the first half, I sat there watching Duke stay neck-and-neck with one of the best teams in the country, thinking that if Joel Berry II cooled off at all, the Blue Devils would sweep the season series against the Tar Heels.
Except in the closing minutes, all of that disappeared. With Giles and Bolden relegated to the sidelines, Duke’s thin frontcourt had no answer for North Carolina’s swarm of big men. The Blue Devils’ defensive communication and rotations were almost nonexistent, and they did not share the ball well enough on offense to get buckets when push came to shove. It all culminated in another close loss after four late missed free throws, a learning experience for a team that finished league play 11-7 for the second straight year.
As I left Chapel Hill, I once again had to ask myself—is Duke good? I had just seen the Blue Devils go toe-to-toe with a Final Four contender on the road, and the game could have easily gone the other way with a few bounces here and there. But Duke’s mistakes were representative of glaring flaws that this team still has to fix, and these flaws are not just going to disappear now that the postseason is starting.
A great basketball team has to be better than the sum of its individual parts, and for most of the season, Duke has not been. The continuity is not there—granted, the Blue Devils have used 10 starting lineups—and they are still banged up with players whose skillsets do not seem like natural fits.
So after 31 games, I have to answer negatively—this Duke team does not seem ready to make a deep run toward Phoenix.
But with the way the roller coaster has unfolded, who knows what could happen when the Big Dance begins? Either way, we’re running out of time to find out.
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