The coronavirus pandemic robbed Duke and the rest of the college basketball world of a postseason, but the 2019-20 season still produced some memories that will live on in Blue Devil lore for years to come.
From a pair of buzzer-beaters downing North Carolina in Chapel Hill to Coach K berating the Cameron Crazies, this year had countless iconic moments. Despite sending consensus first-team All-Americans Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett off to the NBA, Duke entered the campaign with high hopes, checking in at No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25. The Blue Devils largely met these expectations early, taking down then-No. 3 Kansas and then-No. 11 Michigan State, though Duke would also make some dubious history in nonconference play, falling to Stephen F. Austin in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Conference play was similarly up and down, with the highs including a gritty win over eventual ACC champion Florida State and the lows including a loss to Wake Forest.
Let’s get into the 10 season-defining moments of this year.
Nov. 5, 2019—Duke kicks off the season with a win against Kansas
The Blue Devils entered this year with a lot of question marks, none bigger than whether or not Tre Jones could grow into a late-game scorer that Duke could rely on down the stretch. Jones immediately answered against Kansas, scoring six points in the final 97 seconds to lead the Blue Devils to a 68-66 win.
The victory in Madison Square Garden proved to be even more impressive as the season wore on, as the Jayhawks emerged as the best team in the country, ending the season at No. 1 in the AP poll.
Nov. 21-22, 2019—Vernon Carey Jr. breaks out in 2K Empire Classic
Wearing the same No. 1 jersey as Williamson did a year before him, Vernon Carey Jr. had big shoes to fill. Though he played well in Duke’s first four games, it wasn’t until the 2K Empire Classic in Madison Square Garden that Carey established himself as the relentless bruiser that made a strong case for best freshman in the nation. In the Blue Devils’ wins against California and Georgetown, the 6-foot-10 center put up 51 points, 22 rebounds and six blocks, willing Duke to the invitational win.
Nov. 26, 2019—Nonconference home winning streak ends in shocking fashion
I’m going to be honest with you: I was planning on not watching this game intently, following along on my phone while I spent some time with friends. In fact, I found coverage for editing for this game, as I figured it was as good a time as ever to take a break.
Boy, was I wrong.
Like me, Duke also glossed over this game. Coming into the contest against Stephen F. Austin, the Blue Devils boasted a 19-year, 150-game nonconference home winning streak. Thanks to 22 Duke turnovers, a stellar performance from Kevon Harris and a buzzer-beating breakaway layup in overtime, the Lumberjacks upset Duke, spoiling the Blue Devils’ perfect record and sacred streak.
Dec. 3, 2019—Duke exacts revenge on Michigan State
Michigan State ended Duke’s 2019 season, sending the Blue Devils home in the Elite Eight thanks to a late Kenny Goins 3-pointer and a Barrett missed free throw. While a December win certainly doesn’t make up for postseason heartbreak, Duke’s dominant win in East Lansing, Mich., certainly had some added emotion for Blue Devil fans. Jones and Carey led the way for Duke with 20-point double-doubles, handing the Spartans a rare home loss.
Jan. 28, 2020—Coach K berates Cameron Crazies
The most bizarre moment of Duke’s season came in the final moments of the first half of an otherwise uneventful home matchup against Pittsburgh, as head coach Mike Krzyzewski had to be restrained by a referee from going after his own fans. It all started with a “Jeff Capel sit with us” chant from the Cameron student section, which was directed at current Panther head coach and former Blue Devil assistant Jeff Capel. After yelling “Shut up!” at the Cameron Crazies to stop the cheer, Krzyzewski walked over to the student section at halftime, further berating the fans.
The intent of the chant was unclear, as “Sit with us” is typically reserved for former Duke players and recruits in the building, but the timing—the Blue Devils were starting to mount a large lead over Pittsburgh—indicated it was more of a heckle. Krzyzewski admitted postgame that he did not actually hear what was said, but rather was infuriated at hearing Capel’s name. Regardless of the content and intent of the chant, this odd moment launched a flurry of criticism of Krzyzewski on social media.
Jan. 29, 2020—Coach K holds surprise private meeting with tenters
A day after his outburst, Krzyzewski tried to make amends with the Cameron Crazies, holding a surprise meeting with a few dozen tenters on a Wednesday afternoon. After being called for a seemingly normal tent check, the students present in Krzyzewskiville filed into Cameron for a 30-minute speech from the Duke head coach. The talk was wide-ranging, but included an explanation of Krzyzewski’s fragile emotional state due to Kobe Bryant's death and a particularly fun anecdote about tissues.
A month later, Krzyzewski led the handshake line with the Cameron Crazies after a Blue Devil win against North Carolina State, bringing the strange saga full-circle.
Feb. 8, 2020—Buzzer-beaters from Tre Jones, Wendell Moore Jr. stun North Carolina
Trailing by 10 points with 2:06 left, Duke needed a miracle to beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill. It turns out the Blue Devils got two.
After a furious comeback cut the Duke deficit to two, Jones was at the line for his second free throw attempt with four seconds left. What happened next was pure insanity: Jones intentionally missed his shot, corralled the rebound and hit a jumper to force overtime. Wendell Moore Jr. wore the cape in the extra period, making a putback layup as time expired to clinch the improbable Blue Devil victory.
Feb. 10, 2020—Duke grinds out win against Florida State
Just 48 hours after its epic comeback against North Carolina, Duke faced another tall order: No. 8 Florida State. The tired Blue Devils scratched and clawed their way to a pivotal ACC win, relying on unlikely heroes like Matthew Hurt and Javin DeLaurier. The victory upped Duke’s ACC record to 11-2 and marked the peak of the team’s season before a rocky two week stretch.
Feb. 19-29, 2020—Blue Devils drop three of four in ugly stretch
After the Blue Devils rode high in the first portion of the month, they crashed to a new low in the second half of February. The nasty span began in Raleigh, as an unranked N.C. State thrashed Duke 88-66. The Blue Devil blues continued against Wake Forest and Virginia, as Duke blew a late nine-point lead to the lowly Demon Deacons and narrowly fell to the Cavaliers to make it three losses in four games.
March 7, 2020—Justin Robinson saves his best for last
Ending the season abruptly certainly leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of Duke players and fans, but the Blue Devils’ last game could not have been any sweeter.
In its final regular season game, Duke hosted North Carolina for the second installment of the Tobacco Road rivalry, and it wasn’t Carey, Jones or any of the other usual suspects that propelled the Blue Devils to a win. Rather, the hero of the evening was graduate student Justin Robinson, who had played just 227 minutes over his five seasons in Durham heading into the contest. In his first and only career start, Robinson notched 13 points and four blocks, capping his magical evening with a contested triple while falling to the ground, making the Cameron crowd go bonkers.
As Robinson put it, “That’s a storybook ending to my life in Cameron.”
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