The season didn’t finish the way the Blue Devils wanted it to.
After the Blue Devils’ 20-point win against the Tar Heels in early February, it seemed out of the question that Duke could have lost in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last dance at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Not only did that occur, but the team struggled to gain separation before North Carolina finally ran away with things in the last few minutes of play.
That gives Duke a 26-5 record, which on paper might seem disheartening—Auburn, Arizona and Gonzaga all have better records ahead of their conference tournaments. But the Blue Devil faithful should not be dismayed, especially when Duke still has three fewer losses than the next winningest ACC team and has the same amount of losses in conference play as the 2018-19 Duke team, which won the ACC tournament.
The ACC tournament tipped off Tuesday afternoon with the pressure and bright lights on at the Barclays Center. The Blue Devils trek to Brooklyn, N.Y., to compete as the No. 1 seed, and tipoff for their first game is set for 12 p.m. Thursday.
However, Duke will not know its opponent until Wednesday afternoon, when No. 8 seed Florida State and No. 9 seed Syracuse face each other for the first time since the Seminoles took down the Orange 76-71 Jan. 15. Syracuse has an earlier win against Florida State as well, so the Blue Devils’ competition will likely be a matter of which team has the most energy and most focused mindset.
If Duke records a victory in its first contest, it only has to close out two more games to take home the conference title. No. 13 seed Boston College beat No. 12 seed Pittsburgh 66-46 Tuesday afternoon for the right to play No. 5 seed Wake Forest Wednesday. The Demon Deacons beat Boston College by a significant margin in the regular season, so unless an upset occurs, Wake Forest will likely take on No. 4 seed Miami in Thursday's quarterfinals. The Hurricanes beat Wake Forest twice this season, but both teams have strong players, and surprises in the ACC are never out of the question.
Despite close games in the past against both teams, Duke’s consistent standing in the AP Poll backs up the squad to march into either matchup as the favorite. The Blue Devils have repeatedly shown that they have what it takes to succeed in the ACC, having defeated every team except for Miami.
If Duke finds itself victorious in the semifinal Friday, its competition for the title will hail from the opposite side of the bracket, where No. 2 seed Notre Dame, No. 3 seed North Carolina and No. 6 seed Virginia are the favored teams to watch out for.
With Krzyzewski on the sidelines and high expectations even after Saturday's tough loss to North Carolina, a repeat of Duke's 2019 ACC tournament victory is not inconceivable. With a roster featuring the likes of current NBA players Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones and RJ Barrett, that group had the talent, much like this current Duke team, to go through the season unscathed. Yet, just like this year’s team, the 2018-19 team also suffered a loss against North Carolina in the regular-season finale.
Yes, there have been a few outliers for Duke this season, but don’t forget the constant strength that these Blue Devils have shown ever since their opener. Despite the loss, the 2018-19 team pulled through and avenged itself with three straight victories—including one against North Carolina—in the ACC tournament to clinch the title. Three years have passed since then, but the current Blue Devil roster undoubtedly features a comparable amount of NBA potential and the ability to compete.
If the Blue Devils play with the same grit they have displayed throughout the year, getting Krzyzewski’s 16th and final ACC tournament title will have been in the cards all along—as if this season was written in the stars.
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