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A look back at a tumultuous 12 months of Duke men's basketball

Duke takes on Coppin State in its 2020-21 season opener in a fan-less Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke takes on Coppin State in its 2020-21 season opener in a fan-less Cameron Indoor Stadium.

For the first time since 1995, an NCAA tournament is set to occur without Duke included.

CBS’ annual Selection Sunday show came and passed, and the Blue Devils’ name wasn’t called. Not as an at-large bid, and not even as a COVID-replacement team (the top four teams that didn’t make the cut, who can potentially make it into the tournament if one of the original 68 teams has to drop out prior to Tuesday at 6 p.m.)

Then, right after the hour-long Selection Sunday broadcast concluded, The News and Observer’s Steve Wiseman reported that Duke opted out of the NIT.

On Thursday, Duke was forced to withdraw from the ACC tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test within the program and subsequent contact tracing. At the time, athletic director Kevin White included in a written statement that, “Since last March when the pandemic started, we have listened to our medical experts and always put safety at the forefront of any determinations regarding competition. As a result, this will end our 2020-21 season.”

However, the NCAA’s Andy Katz reported early Sunday morning that no teams had notified the NCAA tournament selection committee that it didn’t expect to be able to participate in the NCAA tournament due to medical protocols, meaning Duke was still in consideration for a bid.

When asked to confirm whether Duke had been offered and thus declined an NIT bid, team spokesman Mike DeGeorge referred The Chronicle to White’s statement from Thursday.

Despite all that uncertainty, we do know one thing for certain: the Blue Devils’ season is over, and COVID-19 ended it prematurely, just hours ahead of an ACC tournament quarterfinal matchup with Florida State.

We took a look back at how the Blue Devils got to this point, starting a full year ago.

Full rewind

It feels like deja vu, with COVID-19 bringing Duke’s postseason hopes to a grinding halt yet again. 

Led by ACC Player of the Year Tre Jones and ACC Freshman of the Year Vernon Carey Jr., the 2019-20 Blue Devils looked like serious contenders in March Madness, but they would never have a chance to compete for some hardware. An exciting March 7 win against North Carolina in front of a packed Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd would be Duke’s last action of the season, as the ACC and NCAA tournaments were both cancelled amid the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.

Things seemed bleak last spring and early summer as the world grappled with the pandemic, with the Blue Devils not returning to campus until Aug. 2, when they moved into their rooms at the Washington Duke Inn and began team activities.

The preseason was unlike any other, with the start of the college basketball season delayed by a month to the last week of November. Additionally, Duke did not host its traditional Countdown to Craziness or exhibition contests, meaning its regular-season opener would be the world’s first look at the team. -Derek Saul

A rough start

There was no reason to believe that the Blue Devils would not be their usual dominant selves as the season began, with the team entering the campaign ranked No. 9 in the country. However, the season got off to a rocky start. 

First, Duke’s season-opening Nov. 25 matchup against Gardner-Webb was postponed after a positive COVID-19 test in the Gardner-Webb program. After the postponement, the Blue Devils’ regular season started on a hopeful note, as freshman Jalen Johnson’s 19-point, 19-rebound performance propelled the team to a win against Coppin State.

However, a loss at home against Michigan State quickly derailed Duke’s confidence. The Blue Devils were then forced to postpone another matchup against Elon Dec. 1 due to a positive COVID-19 test in Elon’s program before losing yet another nonconference game, this time to Illinois. The defeat dropped Duke to No. 21 in the AP poll, its worst ranking in over three years.

Then, as winter break approached, Duke decided to forgo the rest of its nonconference schedule to allow the players to return home for the holidays. -Glen Morgenstern

Duke stock crashes

Six days after announcing that their remaining nonconference matchups would not be played, the Blue Devils began their ACC slate in mid-December on the road against Notre Dame. While Duke ended up beating the Fighting Irish 75-65 to move to 3-2 on the season, it would be the last time the Blue Devils took the court for three weeks, with COVID-19 issues in both Pittsburgh and Florida State’s programs postponing—and eventually cancelling—the team’s next two conference matchups.

Duke finally took the floor again Jan. 6 against Boston College, with the Eagles coming to Durham and nearly pulling off a massive upset. But the Blue Devils held on for associate head coach Jon Scheyer’s first career win as a head coach. Scheyer was replacing head coach Mike Krzyzewski on the sideline due to the latter being forced into quarantine after being exposed to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19.

Krzyzewski returned and secured a win against Wake Forest three days later, but three consecutive losses to Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Louisville, respectively, brought Duke back down to .500, with chatter starting to center around the potential of the Blue Devils missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994-95. 

The rollercoaster ride didn’t end there, though. 

The Blue Devils appeared to turn a corner with wins against Georgia Tech and Clemson, but everything came crashing down when Duke fell 77-75 to a decimated Miami. A heartbreaking loss in the Tobacco Road rivalry, followed up by a head-scratching defeat in Cameron Indoor Stadium to Notre Dame, put Duke at 7-8 on the year and without a true signature performance. With just seven games left in the regular season, the Blue Devils missing the Big Dance was not only a legitimate possibility, but a probability. -Max Rego 

It's not over til it's over

Duke snapped its three-game losing streak with a decisive 69-53 win at N.C. State Feb. 13. But three days later, forward Jalen Johnson—Duke’s top-ranked recruit entering the campaign—decided to opt out of the rest of the season. Johnson’s departure left the team without arguably its most dynamic player, and many wondered if there was life without Johnson for the Blue Devils.

Apparently, there was.

Duke rattled off three consecutive wins without Johnson, including a monumental 66-65 victory against then-No. 7 Virginia that helped push the Blue Devils into ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s “First Four Out” of his NCAA tournament projections. At this point, Duke still had a ways to go to earn a bid from the committee come Selection Sunday, but the Blue Devils looked like a completely different team that was poised to challenge for a spot.

Nevertheless, Duke wouldn’t win another game for the remainder of the regular season, ending on yet another three-game losing streak. The disappointing finish saw the Blue Devils fall to a double-digit seed in the ACC tournament for the first time in program history, and nowhere to be found in Lunardi’s bracket projection.

At this point, the NCAA tournament seemed like a distant dream, with the buzz being that if the Blue Devils wanted to punch their ticket to the Big Dance they’d have to become the first team to win five games in five days to win the ACC tournament. -Jake Piazza

Deja vu 

If the rollercoaster theme of Duke’s season wasn’t already obvious, then the team’s ACC tournament experience was the nail in the coffin.

The Blue Devils began their run with a dismantling of Boston College in the opening round, an impressive but largely expected result. It was the next night, however, that really sparked hope in the hearts of the Duke faithful.

Led by a career game from freshman center Mark Williams, Duke rolled past Louisville to advance to the ACC tournament quarterfinals. The particularly impressive performance pushed the Blue Devils back up to “Next Four Out” in Lunardi’s projections, with a win Thursday night against the Seminoles potentially pushing them into the 68-team field.

But Duke never got to play that game against the Seminoles.

The team announced Thursday morning that a member of the program’s Tier 1 personnel had tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the Blue Devils to withdraw from the ACC tournament. The announcement was the beginning of a whirlwind of a weekend, the one in which White initially said the team’s season was over before multiple reports surfaced that Duke could still play in the NCAA tournament if offered a bid.

Ultimately, Duke didn’t receive that bid, ending one of the most tumultuous seasons, and years, in Blue Devil history. -Evan Kolin

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