For twenty minutes of last Saturday's regular-season-ending contest at Cameron Indoor, a weird pall hung over the proceedings. In Grayson Allen's final home game, the Blue Devils frequently looked slow on defense, tentative on offense, and overmatched on the boards. When a late run at the end of the first half sent the Tar Heels into the locker room with a ten-point lead, it appeared that a hugely gifted Duke team prone to lapses and letdowns might well fail to rise to this most epic of occasions.
And then the deluge.
Looking for all the world like an entirely different squad, the Blue Devils overwhelmed their archrival in the second half. After a poor shooting performance in the first frame, Duke began pouring in three-pointers during a 25–10 run that ultimately turned a ten-point deficit into a 74–64 victory that clinched the number-two seed in the ACC Tournament. Galvanized by star freshman Marvin Bagley, Duke played a loose-limbed, freewheeling style of basketball that favored their immense advantages in sheer athleticism.
Bagley led the way with twenty-one points, while guards Allen and Gary Trent Jr. chipped in with fifteen and thirteen, respectively. Trevon Duval and Wendell Carter Jr. also made key contributions, and the net takeaway from that dominating second half was of a team no one can hope to keep up with once they kick it into overdrive. The Blue Devils finished their regular season on a 6–1 tear, ranked fifth in the nation, and will receive a double bye in the conference tournament. They will be locked into at least a two-seed in the NCAA tournament, with the potential to sneak into a one-seed depending on this week's results. Talent, chemistry, and Coach K’s alchemy all seem to be coming together at the right moment.
No matter where they end up in the tournament seeding, opponents will look at Duke and shudder.
First things first. This week's conference tournament promises all manner of intrigue, beginning with the potential for marquee rematches with UNC and Virginia. A championship game victory over the Cavaliers represents the big prize, an opportunity to avenge January's close loss to Tony Bennett's team and further state their case for a one-seed in the NCAA’s tourney. Getting there will not be easy, however. Tomorrow the Blue Devils will face the winner of tonight's contest between a tricky Virginia Tech team that dealt Duke its last defeat a week and a half ago and a Notre Dame squad that is finally healthy, well-coached, and perched on the tournament bubble.
Should they clear that hurdle, the semifinals will likely pit them against the winner of a UNC–Miami contest that features two gifted, ranked teams with the ability to beat anyone on a given night. Rivalries aside, it's tempting to think that the Hurricanes may represent the more dangerous proposition, with their battle-tested surfeit of NBA-level ability. Regardless, this represents a significant gauntlet and a testament to the staggering depth of an ACC conference that will likely send eight teams to the NCAA Tournament and leave a few worthy contenders to the side.
Tough matchups aside, I very much expect to see the Blue Devils in the finals against UVA this coming Saturday. Ridiculously talented and riding a wave of momentum, Duke finally showed signs in the second half of Saturday's game that they can get their best players comfortable sharing the court at the same time. The regular season finale against UNC was significant in the standings but perhaps more so in terms of morale. Bit by bit, this team has resolved the difficulties that at times seemed likely to derail their championship ambitions. A full-time switch to zone patched up a leaky defense, Coach K's lineup tinkering and increased reliance on his bench has yielded crucial dividends, and Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley have finally shown indications that two alphas can be better than one.
No team has been more dominant than UVA this season, and no one is better equipped to slow down the Duke offensive juggernaut. The Cavs’ deliberate pace caused Duke considerable frustration in their first matchup of the season, and the Blue Devils will have to guard against the temptation to force bad shots and play into their opponents’ hands. Have they grown enough since January to topple the nation's top-ranked team and grab a number-one seed of their own?
The guessing here is that they have.
In a star-making turn for Trevon Duval and a fitting encore for Allen, I look for Duke to cut down the nets next Saturday night on the strength of superior guard play and a sterling effort from their newly stout defense. Call it Duke 68–62 over UVA—and buckle up for March Madness.