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Don't panic: Why Duke men's basketball's loss to Gonzaga is a good thing

R.J. Barrett will learn from his late mistakes from Gonzaga.
R.J. Barrett will learn from his late mistakes from Gonzaga.

Duke never really had it quite right. 

Tre Jones and Zion Williamson—of all people—missed dunks. The Blue Devils were discombobulated and seemingly lacking a clear sense of purpose of what to do with the ball for stretches of the first half. Finally, R.J. Barrett missed five shots in the final minute. 

It all might sting now for Duke fans, but the No. 1 Blue Devils’ 89-87 loss to No. 3 Gonzaga Wednesday was an invaluable reality check and learning opportunity for a team that will be contending for a title later this year. I’m not generally optimistic about young teams, and I wasn’t heading into this season. 

This team has it—just not yet. 

No, Duke wouldn’t beat the Cavaliers, as some analysts have ludicrously floated. And no, of course they weren’t going to go undefeated, despite how they demolished Kentucky. 

In spite of Barrett’s poor handling of the final minute of the game and a barrage of stupid mistakes throughout the game team-wide, the Blue Devils were almost able to knock off Gonzaga in a game they had no business winning, considering how poorly the first half went. 

That’s why it’s clear they’ll be there when it’s all said and done. 

Barrett has been the top dog his whole life, even in Duke’s stacked recruiting class. Of course he was going to force shot after shot with the game on the line.

Never was that more apparent than on the final play in regulation, when Barrett shuffled indecisively at the top of the key. It wasn’t going to be a good shot—especially since he seemed to be leaning on a foul call to bail him out the end. 

He took it anyway, but that doesn’t seem like a shot Barrett will take again down the road. He’s too good not to learn from this moment, against one of the nation’s top teams with most of the nation lounging on their couches watching. 

As for the dunks, those were just throw-away moments—likely won’t happen again. And finally, as to the sloppiness in the first half, it was exacerbated by Gonzaga’s absurd shooting. The Bulldogs were shooting better than 70 percent from the field—that’s just unreal. 

Pair that with some youthful Blue Devil stagnation on offense, and you’ve got a dreary first half—relative to the heavens-high expectations. That stagnation will most likely morph into a much more efficient win assembly line. 

Overall, my concerns heading into the season—a lack of depth behind the four elite freshmen, 3-point shooting and defense—have mostly been quelled. 

Marques Bolden has grown up a lot, as have Jack White and Javin DeLaurier, and shooting behind the arc has been promising—Cam Reddish looks lethal. 

And sure, Duke’s defense hasn’t been stellar, but it’s a young team with a lot of time to grow. Plus, it seems they can score their way out of almost any deficit. 

The most encouraging sign from Wednesday’s loss: “Zombie Duke” rose again. 

Facing a 14-point deficit midway through the second half, some other teams may have rolled over and taken the loss—especially young ones. But Duke only turned on the gas, and probably would have won had it, if not for poor execution down the stretch. 

It’s clear: this isn’t a team full of lottery picks already trying on NBA jerseys or absorbed with their own highlights after losses. It might not be just perfect, but it will be. They’re in it together. 

Teams that play together win it all together. 


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