If they make a movie about Duke’s 2016-17 season, they’re going to need to change the ending to fit the rest of the story. Otherwise people will be walking out of the theater sorely disappointed that something so intriguing for so long had such an unsatisfying ending.
Unofficially declared national champions long before the season began, the Blue Devils had a path to victory that seemed as clear as could be on paper. Boundless talent, second-to-none coaching and championship experience made many think a sixth title was a given.
In reality, this team was never as good as it was on paper, at least not often enough to count. Sunday’s 88-81 loss to South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament drove that point home and made for an incredibly disappointing end to such a promising season.
It’s not like this is the first time Duke has been bounced earlier than expected, as the 2012 and 2014 teams were upset in the round of 64 and the 2011 squad (which was the defending champ) was a No. 1 seed but lost by 16 to Arizona in the Sweet 16. But there’s a different vibe to this exit, and not just because of the massive hype this team garnered coming into the season.
That premature praise was understandable with Duke’s returning the likes of explosive junior scorer Grayson Allen and seniors Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, all of whom were integral to the 2015 title run, along with rising sophomore Luke Kennard. On top of that, the Blue Devils were adding the No. 1 recruiting class that featured a trio of likely NBA lottery picks in Marques Bolden, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum.
Plenty of other loaded teams have fallen short of greatness, too, so not living up to expectations doesn’t separate this Duke team from the rest of the pack. What does, though, is how Duke so often managed to trick us into believing it could overcome an almost nonstop run of adversity.
Before winning four games in as many days to claim the ACC tournament title, which sparked plenty of debate about whether it could become the first eight-loss No. 1 seed, Duke had lost three of four. Before running off seven in a row from Jan. 28 to Feb. 18 with wins over North Carolina and at Notre Dame and Virginia, the Blue Devils had opened league play at 3-4.
That period featured coach Mike Krzyzewski‘s sudden departure to undergo back surgery as well as the “indefinite” suspension of Allen following another tripping incident (which ended up lasting one game). That was just a footnote of a tremendously rough season for Allen.
And before an early-December win over Florida at Madison Square Garden, a game in which Tatum first made his presence known, we were left wondering if we’d ever get to see the stacked lineup we’d been promised before the season.
So many times we were ready to count Duke out, a victim of circumstance and a cautionary tale for why you don’t count your championships before the games are played. And just as many times, if not more, we were willing to ignore all the warning signs and choose to believe this was a championship-caliber team.
Turns out, the Blue Devils were both the kind of team that can post 13 wins over top-50 RPI teams but also lose to one of the more unimposing No. 7 seeds in recent memory. And by not getting out of the first weekend of the NCAA tourney, the team will face a higher decibel of “failure” noise than had it reached the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight only to bow out.
Instead we’re left with disappointments and what-ifs, most notably:
What if Harry Giles had been able to play like the guy projected as a No. 1 pick as recently as last summer instead of one who looked afraid to risk another injury with NBA millions so close in the future? The 6’10” forward, who didn’t play his first game with Duke until Dec. 19 while recovering from preseason arthroscopic knee surgery, played only 11.5 minutes per game and went scoreless and had three rebounds in nine minutes in what’s likely his final college game.
What if Allen hadn’t faced a crisis of conscience brought on mostly by his own actions but also the constant scorn of a college basketball populace for being “that guy” from Duke that everyone loves to hate? What if he’d been able to ignore the haters instead of seeing his scoring average dip from 21.6 points per game as a sophomore to 14.5 with nearly as many single-digit or scoreless efforts as ones when he went for 20 or more?
After everything that happened this season, the NCAA tournament was Duke’s chance at redemption and validation, that it didn’t matter how many perils and pitfalls it faced before being on the sport’s biggest stage. With so many great players at its disposal, it was possible to have Allen struggle, have Giles play scared and not see Bolden develop and still win.
Tatum could have cemented himself as one of Duke’s best freshmen ever instead of yet another great one-and-done player. Kennard‘s emergence as a go-to player could have put him in the same category as former Blue Devils like J.J. Redick or Jay Williams. And Jefferson, the glue that helped hold this fractured team together for much of the year, could have furthered his legacy.
A second-round flameout made none of that possible. This season was a disaster, and there’s no other way to categorize something that held such promise.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.