Back to back? Been there, done that.
The reigning national champion Blue Devil squad had some expectations going into the 2015-2016 season. Their 68-63 victory over the Wisconsin Badgers in the 2015 National Championship game sadly led to the departure of Duke’s superstar freshmen Justise Winslow, Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, all joining Duke’s extensive list of one-and-done’s. However, they returned with rising star Grayson Allen, along with seasoned veterans Matt Jones, Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson. Duke’s chance for another strong season seemed intact with the addition of top recruits Brandon Ingram and Chase Jeter, but they ended up one of the worst seasons in recent program history. The stars just didn’t align for the Blue Devils this time around, causing Duke to fail to repeat as national champions for a second time. Here’s a more in depth look at why.
Very Young Team
This problem affects Duke almost every year, along with many other elite programs in the Power 5 conferences. Back in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, the majority of players stayed all four years, allowing many players to develop into their fullest potential. But players began to leave after their freshman or sophomore years in the late 90’s to go to the NBA, preventing teams from developing longstanding chemistry. This year’s Duke team only had two seniors on their squad: Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson. Junior Matt Jones was a returning key player, and he was joined by Duke’s new villain: sophomore guard Grayson Allen. A reincarnation of players like Christian Laettner, Steve Wojciechowski and JJ Redick, Allen’s ruthless style of play alienated basketball fans outside of Durham, North Carolina because the perception of a talented basketball bully wasn’t appealing to them. Despite Allen’s increase from 4.4 ppg to 21.6 ppg, the little experience that these returning players had wasn’t enough experience to carry the Blue Devils through the season and the playoffs. Coach K did his best to fill the holes by acquiring the versatile Brandon Ingram (often described as a young Kevin Durant), powerful Chase Jeter, and sniper Luke Kennard, but overall the team’s lack of experience is one of the things that they couldn’t overcome.
This year’s Duke team went 25-11, including 11-7 in conference play. That’s a pretty good season for most programs, but not for Duke. Coach K’s teams have finished in the top 10 of the AP rankings in 18 of the past 19 seasons. This year was the first time since 2007 that Duke fell out of the AP rankings. Their record in 2007? 22-11. Other than 2016 and 2007, Duke didn’t have a season with double-digit losses since 1996. Their legacy of excellence caused a few of the losses this year to raise some eyebrows, especially to unranked teams like Utah, Clemson, Notre Dame, and Pitt. These loses undoubtedly repressed their morale, as the early losses began to snowball. Their poor performance during the season gave them a #5 seed in the ACC tournament, guaranteeing some challenges early on.
The Blue Devils’ lack of experience caught up to them in this game, failing to close under pressure by shooting a poor FG percentage of 34.2% in an 84-79 OT loss to Notre Dame. Guards Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard together shot a weak 25.7% from the field, unable to lead their team to an ACC tournament championship and thus, forcing them into a lukewarm #4 seed tournament seed. They were able to take down UNC-Wilmington and Yale with ease, but they went into the Sweet 16 with some trepidation. Duke was matched up with Pac-12 Champion and #1 seed Oregon Ducks, loaded with rising star Tyler Dorsey and first team all-conference forwards Dillon Brooks and Elgin Cook. Duke’s defense was no match for Oregon’s offensive firepower. The Ducks got into a rhythm after throwing down a series of emphatic dunks on the Blue Devils, preventing Duke from establishing a rhythm and ultimately coming out on top 82-68.
Duke failed to reach their goal and repeat, but the last thing anyone should do is count the Blue Devils out for next season. While giving a team a #1 ranking this early is often a curse, Duke is going to be lethal next season with the acquisition of ESPN’s 300 top high school prospects: #1 Harry Giles, #3 Jayson Tatum and #10 Frank Jackson, combined with the retention of Allen, Kennard, and Jeter. Don’t be surprised if you see the Blue Devils cutting down the nets in 2017.
IU ’20 (Duke Fan)