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ChronSports’ Top 10 of 2021 — No. 6: Duke men's basketball's season ends on positive COVID-19 test

Last men's basketball season ended on a big question mark for the Blue Devils.
Last men's basketball season ended on a big question mark for the Blue Devils.

As 2021 comes to a close, The Chronicle's sports department takes a look back at the biggest stories of the year in Duke athletics. Each day, we will review a major game, event or storyline that helped shape the course of the year for the Blue Devils. 

Coming in at No. 6: Duke men's basketball forced to bow out of ACC Tournament due to positive COVID-19 test. For the full list, click here.

On March 11, 2021, the news broke: Duke men’s basketball had its first positive COVID-19 test of the season and the entire team had to quarantine. It was the day of their quarterfinal matchup against Florida State in the ACC tournament, where the Blue Devils were making a run. 

The 2020-21 men’s basketball season was an anomaly for Duke. Its first loss came on only its second game of the season against No. 8 Michigan State. The Blue Devils put up a respectable effort in their top-10 matchup, only losing by six with a final score of 75-69. They then dropped their next top-10 game against No. 6 Illinois at home, this time by 15. Duke strung together three ACC wins and had a handful of games cancelled or postponed before it hit the heart of the schedule in mid-January.

It was No. 19 Duke at No. 20 Virginia Tech. Matthew Hurt, Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward combined for 56 points; the rest of the team combined for 11. The Blue Devils lost 74-67. While that loss seems reasonable, they then lost their next game at Pittsburgh. And then the next at Louisville. They had two more three-game ACC losing streak in early February, the first of which consisted of straight dropped matchups at Miami and then at home against North Carolina and Notre Dame. Duke closed out its regular season with losses to Louisville, Georgia Tech and North Carolina once again. 

It looked like disaster for the Blue Devils. They had a 9-9 conference record. Unranked and extremely unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament for only the fourth time in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s lengthy career—March 2020 not included—Duke wasn’t the basketball powerhouse it had been for so many years. Was the dynasty over? Had Coach K lost his touch?

And then the ACC tournament rolled around. 

And the Blue Devils start winning. By a lot. As the 10th seed in the tournament, Duke steamrolled Boston College in the first round, winning by 35. In their regular season matchup, Duke only won by one. Then it moved onto seventh seed Lousiville, whom it had lost to in overtime just a few weeks earlier. This time, the Blue Devils closed it out. The final score was 70-56. 

Suddenly, the Blue Devils weren’t dead. Their fire was alive and well, and they had a mission. Make the NCAA Tournament. While their regular season performance couldn’t do it, winning the ACC title just might have. The Blue Devils were playing like a cohesive unit again; Hurt’s shooting was unstoppable, and Mark Williams was beginning to emerge as a strong paint player. His 19 rebounds against Louisville in the second round truly turned the tides in Duke’s favor. With play like that, the Blue Devils had a shot at beating Florida State and whoever else would have stood in the way between them and the ACC title. 

And then it all went south. 

One singular positive test was all it took. After a COVID-19 free year, Duke’s season ended the morning before it was supposed to face Florida State and prove to the committee, and the world, that it was still a force to be reckoned with. Instead, it was forced to forfeit the game. It was an abrupt ending as disappointing as the tumultuous season itself.


Rachael Kaplan | Assistant Blue Zone Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.

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