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ChronSports' 2020 what-if series: Duke men's basketball

Tre Jones and Vernon Carey Jr. led one of the more confusing Blue Devil squads in recent memory.
Tre Jones and Vernon Carey Jr. led one of the more confusing Blue Devil squads in recent memory.

With the suspension and later cancellation of all Duke athletic competition due to the spread of coronavirus, many Blue Devil seasons were abruptly cut short. The Chronicle is going to take a look back at those seasons affected as well as what we missed out on with their cancellations. First up: men’s basketball.

Season summary

Duke truly had a rollercoaster of a season, a mix of dominant wins and mind-numbing losses that made fans and analysts alike confused as to whether this year’s Blue Devils were a true national title contender. The 2019-20 campaign began with an impressive Champions Classic win against eventual-No. 1 Kansas, with five more wins to start off the season catapulting Duke atop the AP poll. Then came the embarrassing home loss to Stephen F. Austin, breaking the Blue Devils’ 150-game home nonconference win streak and dropping the team nine spots in the rankings. That loss was quickly followed up by a blowout victory at preseason-No. 1 Michigan State and a nine-game win streak that made Duke’s defeat to the Lumberjacks look like the outlier rather than the norm. 

The Blue Devils’ ACC struggles would soon begin, however, with back-to-back losses on the road at Clemson and then at home against then-No. 11 Louisville. It was then that people really started to question this Duke team as a true contender in March. To keep the theme of the season going, the Blue Devils promptly reeled off a seven-game win streak that included their dramatic win at North Carolina and gritty victory against then-No. 8 Florida State within a 48-hour period. That streak, along with the Cardinals’ struggles, put Duke in prime position for its first regular season ACC title since 2010. Right on cue, the team would lose three of its final six games and finish a distant fourth in the conference. -Evan Kolin

Team MVPs

Nobody compares to Duke’s behemoths from last season, Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, but Tre Jones and Vernon Carey Jr. filled the void quite admirably. Jones transformed into a more than adequate shooter and won ACC Player of the Year to show for it. The sophomore improved his clip from 3-point range by nearly 10 percentage points and boosted his scoring to 16.2 points per game while nabbing 1.8 steals per contest. Carey, who was a perimeter player in high school, looked like a veteran in the paint. His 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game earned him ACC Freshman of the Year and First Team All-ACC honors. -Glen Morgenstern

What we missed out on

With the up-and-down season Duke had, the ACC and NCAA tournaments were a chance for this Blue Devil squad to really show their true colors, and an opportunity for captains Jack White, Javin DeLaurier, Justin Robinson and Jones to hang a few more banners in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Sadly for Duke, it never got those opportunities. On the bright side, fans did get to watch the season end with a commanding home victory against North Carolina. -Kolin

Best-case scenario

When the Blue Devils found ways to support Jones and Carey on the offensive end, they were as good as any team in the country. Duke struggled on the road down the stretch, but luckily the road to a national championship does not include true hostile environments. With Cassius Stanley’s knack for the big moment, Wendell Moore Jr. playing his best basketball of the season, the cinderella story of Robinson and Jones’ hunger to avenge last season, the Blue Devils very possibly could have added a banner or two to the rafters in Cameron. -Michael Model

Worst-case scenario

The Blue Devils’ 25-6 record is nothing to sneeze at, but four of those six losses showed concerning signs of a top seed that wouldn’t make it past the first weekend. A shocking opening round loss a la Lehigh in 2012 likely wasn’t in the cards, unless Duke matched up with Stephen F. Austin again. However, a middling seed with a strong frontcourt like Virginia or Purdue could have given the Blue Devils fits, keeping Duke out of the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017. -Derek Saul

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