Duke Has Played Thirty-Three Games, and I've Learned Nothing | Sports

Duke Has Played Thirty-Three Games, and I've Learned Nothing

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It is the Tuesday before the NCAA tournament, two days before their first-round game, and I know nothing about Duke basketball. Following a stretch during which I convinced myself that I finally understood this team and their perverse and wrong-footed ways, I am now fully confused again.

Friday's 74–69 loss to UNC in the ACC tournament semifinals was so jangled and strange, so star-crossed and weird, and such the antithesis of the team’s recent play that I am being forced to re-examine questions about this group's viability as a Final Four contender that I had previously considered resolved. Yes, they played hard until the final whistle and yes, they managed to make a competitive game out of a contest that more than a couple of times appeared to be getting out of hand. But there was so much that came back from the early season struggles—so much that I hadn't thought we'd see again.

Back were the jitters and herky-jerky offensive possessions that staked the Heels to an important early lead. Back was the Grayson Allen drama, whistled for a dumb flagrant-1, after committing a light felony against Garrison Brooks. Back were injury concerns, with emerging Trevon Duval helped off the court with a rolled ankle and only intermittently effective going forward. And back were the twin plagues that have crazed the Blue Devils fanbase for much of the season, as the team was dominated on the offensive glass and turned the ball over repeatedly, often in crucial situations.

In pure brass-tacks terms, the loss changes little. While certain delusional and addled journalists had continued to envision a number-one seed for Duke, the likely reality is that the team was locked into a number-two seed before the tournament began. At the Midwest Regional, with Kansas as the one-seed and familiar faces like N.C. State and Clemson lurking, a challenging mélange of the exotic and all-too-familiar wait to test this befuddling and gifted group.

During their impressive 6–1 stretch to close the regular season, the Blue Devils seemed to have discovered a workable, repeatable set of tactics on both sides of the ball. A midseason switch to a two-three zone made a previously vulnerable team virtually impregnable on defense, ultimately resulting in a school-record-long streak of holding opponents under sixty points. On offense, the difficulty of the Marvin and Grayson problem appeared headed toward a resolution as recently as the Blue Devils’ quarterfinal rout of Notre Dame. Now it's difficult to know what the mercurial Allen's mindset will be heading into the tournament, and UNC's freshman Brooks just provided a clinic on defending Bagley in the paint.

So, yes, a week ago I was prepared to cancel the entire NCAA tournament and just organize a parade in Durham. You could say I got a little exuberant. Maybe, you know, I was little tipsy. It can be pretty intoxicating watching all of this talent fly around. My more sober-minded, Duke-loathing colleague Mike V. has been telling me all year that this Blue Devils squad is built to self-destruct no later than the Sweet 16. Maybe he was right all along, and I was wrong to send him all of those hectoring gifs of Cherokee Parks.

We'll find out soon enough. Rivalry games are notoriously strange, and UNC–Duke is a petri-dish of weirdness and anxiety even above and beyond the usual standards. It's possible the Blue Devils just caught a wild hair for the first thirty-five minutes and weren't quite as exposed as they appeared. There is no team in the Midwest Region that you would think they couldn't beat and a couple that they already have. I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see them reach San Antonio and the Final Four.

But for a team long advertised as the single most gilded collection of talent in the nation, they enter the tourney feeling like no better than the third-best team in their own conference. That's hardly the wave of momentum we were hoping for.

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