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A Look Back At Duke’s Season

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Duke didn't win the championship but it did accomplish some amazing things

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Army v Duke
 DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 11: Cam Reddish #2 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts against the Army Black Knights during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 11, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Somewhere in the multiverse R.J. Barrett nailed that last 3-pointer, Cam Reddish doesn’t tweak his knee, the NCAA has enough sense to put Michigan as the two-seed in Duke’s regional.

But in this universe Duke’s promising 2019 season ended in a painful loss to Michigan State hours before March turned into April.

I suspect we can all stay on the right side of the ledge while acknowledging the disappointment of that loss.

Does that make the entire season a disappointment?

Darned if I know. It comes down to that whole journey versus destination question. The journey was pretty cool. But the destination was the mountain top, not base camp.

But it’s history now and some of that history is pretty compelling.

Full disclosure. If you’re of the lies-damnable-lies-and-statistics-school-of-thought- stop reading now. This is a stats-based narrative. But this Duke team--both collectively and individually--did accomplish some things few Duke and ACC teams have ever accomplished before and they deserve celebration.

Not surprisingly, Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett figure in a lot of these.

Barrett ended the season averaging 22.63 points per game, Williamson 22.61.

Barrett 860 points are second in Duke history to J.J. Redick’s 964 in 2006.

Did Barrett and Williamson tie for the ACC scoring lead? Or did Barrett win?

The ACC hasn’t updated their stats page. But in 1978 Wake Forest’s Rod Griffin averaged 10.03 rebounds per game, Duke’s Mike Gminski 9.97 per game and the ACC has always considered them to have tied for the conference lead in rebounds-per-game.

Prior to this season Duke had nine players lead the ACC in scoring. Danny Ferry, Jason Williams and J.J. Redick did it twice. So, this becomes the 13th season a Duke player has led the ACC in scoring and the first time players from the same team finished 1-2.

Barrett and Williamson became the 20th and 21st Duke players to average more than 20 points-per-game for a season. Art Heyman and Jeff Mullins did it three times; Dick Groat, Ronnie Mayer, Bob Verga, Randy Denton, Mike Gminski, Williams and Redick did it twice. I’m not counting Tate Armstrong’s injury-shortened 1977 season.

That makes 32 20-ppg seasons, all since Groat in 1951.

This year was only the fourth time Duke has had two players average 20 points-per-game in the same season. Heyman and Mullins did it in 1962 and 1963, Jim Spanarkel and Gminski in 1978. Duke barely missed in 2001, when Williams averaged 21.6 and Shane Battier finished at 19.9, one field goal shy of 20 ppg.

Note that three of these four teams advanced to the Final Four, with the 2001 team winning it all. So, there’s no reason a team with two big scorers can’t win big.

Speaking of Heyman and Mullins. Heyman averaged 11.2 rebounds per game in 1962, Mullins 10.4. This remains the only team in Duke history to have two players average double figures in rebounds.

To give some perspective, Mike Krzyzewski has had three players average 10 or more rebounds per game in his 39 years at Duke. Shelden Williams accomplished this in 2005 and 2006, Mason Plumlee in 2013 and Marvin Bagley in 2018. I’m likewise not counting Amile Jefferson’s nine-game 2016 season.

Heyman averaged 25.3 ppg in 1962, Mullins 21.0. That’s 46.3, the highest duo total in Duke history. Barrett and Williamson’s 45.2 ties for third with 1963 Heyman (24.9) and Mullins (20.3). Redick (26.8) and Shelden Williams (18.8) combined for 45.6 in 2006.

No real surprise here. But what happens when we add a third scorer to the equation?

That’s where the surprise comes in.

Cam Reddish was a flash-point for much of the Duke fan base this past season. Why didn’t he play more like a top-5 recruit? Why didn’t he average more than that measly 13.5 ppg?

Well, it turns out that adding those 13.5 points to Barrett and Williamson gives the trio 58.7 points per game, which is the highest scoring trio in Duke history.

The previous top mark was held by Spanarkel (20.8), Gminski (20.0) and Gene Banks (17.1) in 1978, a total of 57.9.

Rounding out the top five are 2002 Jason Williams (21.3), Carlos Boozer (18.2) and Mike Dunleavy (17.3), total 56.8; 1965 Verga (21.4) Jack Marin (19.1) and Steve Vacendak (16.2), total 56.7; and 1963 Jay Buckley’s 11.2 adding up to 55.6.

So, maybe Reddish did about as much as he could do in the Barrett-Williamson-dominated universe.

Then again Georgia Tech made the 1990 Final Four with Dennis Scott (27.7), Brian Oliver (21.3) and Kenny Anderson (20.6) combining for 69.6 ppg.

So, it can be done.

One final word before we leave Williamson for awhile.

He ended the season shooting 68 percent from the field. The way Duke calculates this sort of thing, that places him third in school history, behind Christian Laettner’s 72.3 in 1989 and Marshall Plumlee’s 68.8 in 2016.

But the ACC requires an average of five made field goals per game to qualify for conference leadership. Under that stricter standard, Williamson was the second best shooter in ACC history, behind Brendon Haywood’s 69.7 in 2000.

Williamson and Barrett weren’t the only freshmen setting records. Tre Jones ended the season with 192 assists against 53 turnovers. That’s 3.66 assists per turnover, shattering the old Duke record of 3.03 set by Steve Wojciechowski in 1997.

Still safe is the ACC record of 4.11 set by Pitt’s James Robinson in 2014.

Duke did lead the NCAA in blocked shots, 257, an average of 6.76 per game. This breaks the old ACC record of 6.72 set by Maryland in 2004.

Williamson led Duke with 59 blocks. Marques Bolden had 58, Javin DeLaurier 50.

This is the first time Duke has ever led the NCAA in blocked shots.

Duke finished fifth in the NCAA in steals-per-game at 9.1 per game. Duke’s 346 steals is the sixth highest total in school history. The 2001 team had 401.

Williamson led Duke with 70 steals, followed by Jones with 68 and Reddish with 56.

Williamson joins Kenny Dennard (1981), Christian Laettner (1991) and Battier (1998, 2001) as the only players to lead Duke in rebounds, blocks and steals in the same season.

So, with all these points and blocks and steals, why didn’t Duke go further?

The culprit will not surprise you. This might have been the worst shooting team of the modern Duke era. The Blue Devils connected on a woeful 30.8 percent of their 3-pointers.

That’s 328th out of 351 nationally.

That’s not only the worst in school history, it’s the worst by a wide margin. The previous low was 34.9 percent in 2009.

Shooting 68.6 from the foul line didn’t help either. That’s the worst since the 1995 team shot 67 percent.

So, perhaps it’s fitting that Duke ended its season by missing an open 3-pointer and then a foul shot.

Still, 32 wins is 32 wins. Duke has only posted more wins in a season six times and four of those teams won NCAA titles and the other two lost in the title game. Those are pretty lofty standards but standards that this Duke team failed to meet. That’s life at the top.

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