This one hurt.
That’s not to say the end of a basketball season doesn’t always hurt when it isn’t accompanied by blue and white confetti falling from the ceiling. As Duke fans, that’s our blessing and our curse: we’re blessed with great success, and cursed with expecting that success every year. So every season that ends without a National Championship banner brings with it some degree of disappointment.
But this one hurt more than usual.
How much it hurt honestly came as a surprise. I ached in 2011 when Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith couldn’t end their career with the fanfare they deserved, not to mention the added frustration of what could have been with a healthy Kyrie Irving. I desperately wanted to see the 2013 team, which may be the last great “senior-led” Duke team (with Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Mason Plumlee guiding the Blue Devils), earn a trip to Final Four. And Grayson Allen’s tantalizing rim-out at the buzzer last season cost the polarizing, but beloved, Blue Devil a chance to redefine his legacy with a Final Four that he could claim as his own.
But each of those teams, like this year’s, fell victim to the madness of March. The 2011 squad ran into a top NBA draft pick in Derrick Williams who took over the game. The 2013 team lost to the eventual National Champions, who were given an emotional boost after a scary injury to Kevin Ware. And last year, the last minute of regulation and all of overtime amounted to a series of unfortunate events that the talented squad just couldn’t overcome.
The end of this year’s season had a bit of all of those elements. Duke fans will forever question how this team might have continued to develop and improve had Zion Williamson’s shoe not exploded and cost him the end of the regular season, and we may never know how much injury affected Marques Bolden, Jack White, and Cam Reddish in the NCAA Tournament. While this team lacked senior leadership, the inevitable departure of Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Reddish made you want them to go out on top; alas, the fighting Cassius Winstons’ seemed to have destiny on their side. And there were a lot of unfortunate circumstances that contributed to the loss to Michigan State, ranging from the injury issues to some questionable refereeing decisions that allowed the Spartans to turn the paint into a wrestling match with Zion.
But more than anything, I felt (and I think a lot of Duke fans felt) a stronger personal relationship with this team than any in recent memory. We felt the bond between Williamson and Barrett and their indelible will to win. We saw Tre Jones play for his dream school and earn his place amongst Duke’s freshman greats on more than just his brother’s reputation. And, despite some bumps along the way, we saw players like Javin DeLaurier, Jack White, and Jordan Goldwire have their starring moments despite many writing them off as limited role players early in their careers. This team had fun, loved each other, and played hard every game. They represented everything that is great about Duke Basketball.
All that makes it hurt so much that this group couldn’t earn the historic recognition that comes with a National Championship, or at least a Final Four. Not ending the season with a win allows the Duke legacy of these young men to be marred, at least in the moment, by complaints about the one-and-done era, or their shooting limitations, or lack of experience. Many will lose sight of the positives, and focus on the negatives, based on one loss.
But time brings with it perspective. Years from now, I’ll remember that I got to see Zion Williamson play in person and put on a show alongside RJ Barrett and his hometown Mississauga fans. I’ll remember how that experience, combined with the general joy exuded by this group, made this the first year that my wife (who was raised in Maryland and thus had a deep-seated dislike of Duke) truly embraced the Blue Devils. Indeed, the thing I’ll remember most from this year probably won’t be how it ended, but my wife’s reaction to the end of the UCF game, and how much more fun it was watching it with her by my side.
I’m sure everyone reading this will have a memory like that, be it a particular Zion OMG Williamson moment, or the Louisville comeback, or Cam’s shot against Florida State, or the ACC Tournament run. And as much as it hurts today, take solace in the fact that, years from now, that memory is what will likely be the clearest in your mind.
Today hurts. Next weekend will hurt more, knowing what could have been. But the memories this team gave us will outlast that hurt. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t come back and invest so much of ourselves in a group of teenagers bouncing a ball every year; if the only enjoyable seasons were ones that ended in championships, sports fandom wouldn’t be worthwhile.
Thanks for the memories, boys. They’ll last forever, and I’m forever thankful.