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Guest Column - Appreciate A Great Year By Duke

This column is by Robert Tally, a DBR reader from Texas.

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March 24, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Duke Blue Devils center Marshall Plumlee (40) grabs a rebound against Oregon Ducks during the first half of the semifinal game in the West regional of the NCAA Tournament at Honda Center.
March 24, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Duke Blue Devils center Marshall Plumlee (40) grabs a rebound against Oregon Ducks during the first half of the semifinal game in the West regional of the NCAA Tournament at Honda Center.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

We Duke fans have been blessed, some might say spoiled, with an unbelievable run of success in the Coach K era, and as such Duke fans can sometimes harbor unreasonable expectations or experience disappointment where we ought to be celebrating. Obviously, just getting to the NCAA tournament is not our annual goal, but nor is it so easy as Coach K has made it seem. The year's appearance set our streak at 21 straight years (and counting?) and 32 out of the last 33 years, with only the flukey '95 season when Coach K was on medical leave to break up the run. (People forget, even that Cherokee Parks-led team was quite good; all but a couple of the losses were close, many heart-breakingly so, considered we'd had double-digit leads at some point in almost every one). I think that everyone has been rightly appreciative of the success of this 2015-16 men's team, but I also think we need to realize just how amazing this year really was. All things considered, this has arguably been one of the best seasons in Coach K's career.

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First, the obvious: notwithstanding Duke's inflated preseason ranking, nobody should have expected this to be a Top 10 team, but thanks to recruiting hype in the one-and-done era, we now see that sort of thing a lot (see, e.g., Kentucky ... wait, I'm coming to them). Losing four-out-of-five starters, including senior point guard, we shouldn't have had such high expectations. To then lose the only remaining starter from the 2015 after only nine games, who was averaging a double-double at the time, and to lose him for the whole season, that should have made this a rebuilding year at best. Yes, Brandon Ingram is a special talent (see how much more special he was than Ben Simmons, for instance), and Grayson Allen's leap from the bench to All-America has been amazing. And yes, I want to give all the credit in the world to underage point guard Derryck Thornton, excellent frosh play by Luke Kennard, and scrappy efforts from (likely injured) Matt Jones; above all, Marshall Plumlee's development into a solid post presence is the story of the year. But for all of that, realistically, this should have looked like an NIT team. They overachieved mightily, and they should be given a world of credit.

Just consider two great peers who faced similar challenges: UNC in 2010, and Kentucky in 2013. Like this year's Duke team, each was coming off a national championship, and each lost a lot -- though, arguably, not as much as Duke -- from those teams coming into the next season. In Carolina's case, they lost four starters, but they brought in one of the top recruiting classes (Jon Henson, the Wear twins, Dexter Strickland, and Leslie McDonald) to join a characteristically deep team featuring Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller, etc. They were preseason #6 in the AP poll, but finished 16-15 in the regular season, ending with an impressive run to the NIT finals (so, finishing 20-17 overall).

With Kentucky, the 2012 championship team lost its entire starting five (Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague, Jones, and Lamb), but re-loaded with the nation's #1 recruiting class, featuring Noel, Cauley-Stein, Poythress, and Goodwin; they also still had Kyle Wiltjer and others from the prior year. The AP preseason poll had them at #3, but they wound up in the NIT, notoriously losing in the first round to Robert Morris, finishing 20-12 overall. True, Nerlens Noel got hurt, which undoubtedly cost them. But consider the strength of schedule: UK played only five ranked teams that year (Duke, Louisville, Ole Miss, and Florida [twice]), losing three of those games. UNC-2010, by contrast, had to play eight ranked teams, including powerhouses Duke [twice], Kentucky, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Texas, along with the usual ACC hardships.

Duke's team this year, preseason ranked #5, also played eight ranked teams, which does not count teams unranked when we played them, so it leaves out Pac-12 runner-up Utah, Big-10 regular season champs Indiana, or Elite Eight teams Notre Dame [twice] and Syracuse. As everyone knows by now, the ACC was brutal this year. Duke's 2016 team appears to have had a harder schedule than UNC's 2010 squad, and it most certainly had a much harder schedule than UK's 2013 team. (And I haven't even mentioned Duke's lack of depth, since Coach K has long used 7-8 man rotations, but foul trouble and other factors made this lack of depth a real problem in several games.) Given these circumstances, Duke's 25-11 record and Sweet 16 appearance represent truly remarkable achievements.

By the way, I don't mean to pick on UNC and UK, whose drop-offs following championship years and losing experienced starters is wholly understandable. Indeed, it is normal. And I think those teams' experiences are comparable to what Duke has been through these past two years. This is why I say that Duke's 2015-16 season was quite abnormal, a stellar achievement for a very talented but vastly inexperienced group of players. This may well have been one of the most impressive coaching jobs in Coach K's career, and he and his staff, plus the players of course, should be warmly congratulated.

So I celebrate this year's team, while looking forward to next year.