Right now, it feels like the end of the world for Duke men’s basketball.
The then-fourth-ranked Blue Devils got beat soundly by an unranked North Carolina squad. On their home court. In head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last game ever in Cameron Indoor Stadium. In front of 96 of Krzyzewski’s former players, numerous other celebrities and perhaps the most amped-up student section in years.
In terms of regular-season losses, it can’t really get worse than that. But therein lies the beauty of college basketball—the postseason, specifically the NCAA tournament, trumps everything else.
So although it seems like the end of the world right now, all of that pain can be washed away over the next 30 days. Seems impossible? Let’s look at a few examples throughout Duke’s history.
First, the 1991 ACC tournament. Duke and North Carolina met in the tournament’s finale, with the Blue Devils having won both the teams’ regular-season matchups and entering the game as favorites to make it three in a row over their rival. But Dean Smith’s Tar Heels dominated the game from start to finish en route to a 96-74 blowout win, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and pushing Duke to the 2-line.
Fast forward 31 years later, however, and nobody cares. All people remember about that season is Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils upsetting heavily-favored UNLV in the Final Four and then taking down Kansas to capture the program’s first national championship.
Case No. 2: Shane Battier’s Senior Day.
Duke had a pregame ceremony to celebrate retiring Battier’s No. 31 prior to the team’s final home game of the 2000-01 campaign, but in the end Maryland got the last laugh, spoiling the storybook moment with a 91-80 upset victory. At the time, it didn’t seem fair that the then-winningest player in NCAA history could end his home career in defeat. But two decades later, nobody cares, and the dominant images from that season are Battier leading a comeback for the ages in the Final Four against those very same Terrapins and bringing home a national title two days later.
Of course, Saturday night’s game was a little different. It wasn’t a player’s Senior Day, it was Coach K’s Senior Day. The final home game for the man who transformed Cameron Indoor Stadium into one of the most famous venues in sports, and the final home game for the man who transformed Duke men’s basketball into one of the biggest brands in sports. And for those reasons, Saturday’s loss will stand the test of time more than any other regular-season loss in program history.
But that’s the beauty of college basketball—it was only the regular season. In no other sport does one month truly define the entire year, where what happens during the NCAA tournament can erase everything that came before it.
Yes, regular-season games get remembered, but typically only in the context of what happened after. JJ Redick’s disappointing Senior Day loss has stood the test of time, but largely because that 2005-06 Blue Devil squad suffered the same kind of shocking defeat three weeks later to LSU in the Sweet Sixteen. If Duke had brought home a banner instead, that regular-season loss to the Tar Heels washes out the window.
In the end, all of this likely seems obvious. Of course a national title would make up for it. Of course it would be remembered most. But in times like this, in the ensuing days following what could go down as one of the most heartbreaking regular-season losses in sports history, that reminder is important. That sliver of hope is important. The fact that, as Coach K said after Saturday’s defeat, the season isn’t over.
Any Blue Devil fan would trade a loss Saturday night for a win April 4. Will it happen? I have no idea. But I do know there’s virtually nobody better at resetting their team after a brutal defeat than Coach K. He’s done it for 42 years with the Blue Devils, and now he just has to do it one more time.
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