What’s up with Duke’s basketball team?
That’s the question my cousin asked me after the Blue Devils' 74-69 loss to North Carolina in the ACC semifinals last week. As a disclaimer, I should probably mention that my cousin goes to Virginia and only asked this question after making sure I knew how disappointed he was that his Wahoos would not have the opportunity to beat my school for a second time this season.
While we are on the business of disclaimers, I’m not a sportswriter for The Chronicle. In fact, I don’t know much about sports. As a photographer who has sat courtside for eight Duke games this season and edited photos from every game, I still couldn’t tell you our starting lineup’s jersey numbers from memory. I do not follow professional sports and don't follow much about college sports either. Outside of games I have photographed, I have only ever been in the student section of Cameron Indoor Stadium one time.
So what’s up with Duke’s basketball team? I don’t know.
But as someone who covered last year’s ACC tournament and this year’s, the difference was striking. Last year, a team that had been plagued by injury for most of the season found its stride to finish an unprecedented four-game tournament with a trophy in hand. This year, another team regarded as the most talented in the country walked home empty-handed after a disappointing loss to archrival North Carolina. By any metric, last year’s team outperformed expectations in Brooklyn. This year’s team... not so much. In fact, the whole season has been somewhat of a disappointment.
But somehow, I’m not disappointed. This has been the best Duke basketball we could have asked for.
Sure, the team has underperformed—but it has done it in the most spectacular manner possible. This season has been an emotional rollercoaster in the most clichéd sense of the phrase. The team has consistently overcome double-digit deficits to claim wins and given up double-digit leads to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
As someone who is normally too distracted taking photos to look at the scoreboard, this team has had me taking glances at the score whenever I can, or even trying to keep track of the score in my head. The team goes through spurts of playing like a well-oiled machine, interspersed with periods of playing like they are in an intramural game.
And it’s all so relatable.
This team’s youth has been one of its defining characteristics, as it goes through growing pains in front of thousands of fans and viewers every week. The team’s naive mistakes—pointless fouls, bumbling turnovers, missed opportunities—resonate with the freshman in all of us. The tears are real, and the triumph is too.
For undergraduates at Duke, this team’s come-from-behind successes mirror our own successes despite procrastination in the classroom. Its failures are just as humbling as our own. Its energy reminds us of our own fast-moving lives. Its turnover problems remind us of how we drop the proverbial ball in our own lives. Oh, and Grayson Allen is that friend you respect but also kind of see why people hate him.
Regardless, the fate of this season is not yet fully determined. This team certainly has the potential to mature to young adulthood and make it to the Final Four and further. It could also lose in the second round again. Either way, we can sit back and reminisce on how quickly they’ve grown—and watch with the excitement of proud parents as they move on to success in the NBA. We knew it was only going to last a year and embraced the ephemeral excitement anyway.
So what’s up with Duke’s basketball team? I don’t know and I’m not entirely happy about it. But I think I’m okay with it.
Ian is the Photography Editor of The Chronicle and believes that sports and metaphors are like peanut butter and jelly.
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