Before we jump into the postseason as the ACC tournament commences, the Blue Zone takes a look back and recap the Blue Devils' regular season from wins against Gonzaga and Kentucky to shocking losses in front of the home crowd in head coach Mike Krzyzewski's last season.
Coach K’s last dance
When Coach K announced June 2, 2021 he planned to retire after this season, it was set in stone that the 2021-22 season would be one to remember. It would mark the end of a 42-year stint at Duke where he became the all-time winningest coach in men’s college basketball history. The five-time champion had a bittersweet farewell tour ranging from playing his alma mater West Point to finishing the season against archrival North Carolina. The opposing teams were frequently gracious, offering well-wishes for retirement and even awards to commend his contributions to college basketball.
While Krzyzewski knew this season would feel different, he continued to serve his team. This season, Duke attained its 13th ACC regular-season title under Coach K. The Blue Devils' No. 1 seed grants them a bye to Thursday’s quarterfinals at the ACC tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y., where they look for their 22nd ACC championship. Despite Saturday’s loss at Cameron, Coach K led the Blue Devils to a record winning streak on the road. They finished with a Duke school record of nine ACC road wins this season. In fact, Duke's recent eight-game road winning streak is the longest by any power conference team this season and tied for third-longest in ACC history. Even though Coach K’s retirement marks the end of an era, he certainly showed no sign of wanting to slow down.
The emergence of several Blue Devils
With the previous two seasons mired in COVID-19, Duke needed strong player effort this year to get them back into ACC contention and ultimately the NCAA tournament. Freshmen made their collegiate debuts, veterans showcased leadership and many players became key contributors to make this one of Duke’s better teams in its storied history.
Freshman Paolo Banchero was a five-star recruit and led Duke in points, averaging 17.1 per game. During the first half of the season, Banchero had missed playing time during the second half of big wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga because of cramps. The issues were ultimately resolved and he could return to leading the Blue Devils into the conference season. Banchero’s twelve 20-point games now rank second among all power conference freshmen nationally, leading him into the finalists for the Power Forward of the Year award conversation.
Junior Wendell Moore Jr. became a prominent leader this year when he was named one of the team captains. During the Duke Veteran’s Day Weekend showcase, Moore earned MVP honors with wins against Army West Point and Campbell, leading the Blue Devils with a triple-double in the former. He led Duke to victories against the Citadel and No. 1 Gonzaga by scoring 22 points and 20 points, respectively. On the season, he averaged 13.1 points per game to become the second leading scorer on this team. He was a valuable part of the locker room, bringing some experience of playing in big games, and it showed on the hardwood.
To round out the team, freshman Trevor Keels has been a strong combo guard averaging 12.3 points per game. He has been a key defensive presence with Moore, both bringing full court pressure and each averaging 1.5 steals per game. Freshman AJ Griffin has picked up the momentum of his play in the second half of the season, leading the team in 3-point percentage at 48.7%. Mark Williams has been a major X-factor in the paint, becoming the only player in the country shooting better than 70% from both the field and the free-throw line. Graduate student Theo John added size off the bench, freshman Jeremy Roach became another reliable ball-handler and senior Joey Baker has been a steady shooter for the team despite decreased playing time down the stretch.
Duke players have shown their selflessness all season, with each player contributing to their team as a whole and playing for each other. They will need to continue that trend to see success in the postseason.
A story of resiliency
Even though Duke has certainly had a fantastic last ride with Coach K, this season has not been without its setbacks. Most of its losses have been close, which can make them feel even worse. Duke had a tough loss at Ohio State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge but Coach K acknowledged the tough competition and remained optimistic because it inspired energy to its up-and-coming players. A week after the new year, the Blue Devils fell at home against Miami in a nail-biter.
Beyond these games, Duke has shown its resilience and bounce-back efforts in the remaining losses. After losing in overtime at Florida State mid-January, Duke welcomed the Seminoles to Cameron Indoor Stadium to beat them 88-70 the next month. When Duke lost at home to Virginia 69-68 early February, the Blue Devils visited the Cavaliers later that month to beat them 65-61. Finally, Duke had to confront a 13-point loss to rival North Carolina at home Saturday. There is no getting around that this was uncomfortable and tough to swallow for a slew of reasons. However, Duke should remain confident in its abilities since it beat the Tar Heels by 20 on the road last month.
After each loss, Coach K has inspired players with his lessons and keys for improvements. It is part of why Duke finished the season 26-5 overall and 16-4 in the ACC with five players averaging double-figures in points. In a year with heightened attention and scrutiny, the Blue Devils have demonstrated tremendous poise to make them a serious contender this year. The regular season is over, but there is much more basketball to be played in the ACC and NCAA tournaments over the next couple weeks.
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