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Duke Basketball: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

What a long, strange trip it’s - oh, never mind.

North Carolina v Duke
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 07: Detail photo of chairs in Cameron Indoor Stadium before the game between the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels on March 07, 2020 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke’s men’s basketball team was undefeated in March.

Unfortunately that doesn’t mean what we thought it would.

Duke’s two March wins, impressive home victories over arch-rivals NC State and North Carolina, were supposed to be the jumping off point for much bigger March victories.

Supposed being the operative word.

Most Duke basketball seasons end unexpectedly. At least they do for me. I’ve been surprised by every Duke NCAA Tournament loss since Eastern Michigan in 1996 or Providence in 1997. Maybe Kansas in 2003 if you hold me to it.

But eventually closure came.

It seems like we need closure on 2020 before we move to 2021.

Just not sure how. Mike Krzyzewski made it clear that as nice as regular-season games and regular-season titles might be, the end game was March, a successful ACC Tournament run blending into a deep NCAA Tournament run, maybe even Number Six.

Was the entire season a 31-game overture to a musical that never opened?

I’m not ready to go that far. All of these games counted, all of the stats counted. The lows haven’t disappeared. Neither have the highs.

And there were some lows. Yes, Stephen F. Austin was a tough, poised opponent that made winning plays at winning times. And yes, they dominated the Southland and nobody wanted to see them in their bracket.

But still. A double-digit lead at home against a mid-major and Duke lost? Missing 16 foul shots?

The good news is that Duke followed that loss up with a home win over Winthrop, starting another non-conference home winning streak. Mike Krzyzewski should be about 90 when this one ends.

Road losses to Clemson and NC State weren’t totally unexpected, although Duke’s general lack of competitiveness in Raleigh was disturbing. Duke dug a big hole early against Louisville and never climbed all the way out.

But those last two road losses really stung. Duke’s late-game collapse at Wake Forest was almost unfathomable and Duke led Virginia almost the entire second half before falling short at the end.

Win either of those and Duke ties for first. Win both and Duke is all alone at the top.

But the highs were really high. Duke beat Kansas, Michigan State and Florida State, three teams that ended the season in the top 10. It’s always good when Duke sweeps North Carolina, even a bad North Carolina team. This was the first regular-season sweep by Duke since 2015 and that epic double-comeback win in Chapel Hill makes lots of short lists.

Duke lost that non-conference home winning streak but kept alive a bunch of others. Duke finished the season 25-6, its 24th consecutive season with at least 20 wins, 13th consecutive with at least 25, 13th straight season with at least 11 ACC regular-season wins. Duke was ranked number one in the AP poll at least one week for the fourth consecutive season.

There’s something to be said for sustained excellence and by any rational standard Duke sustained excellence this past season.

And there were individual accolades. We’ve already discussed Tre Jones winning the ACC Player of the Year Award and Vernon Carey winning the ACC Rookie of the Year Award. Jones and Carey also made first-team All-ACC. Duke has had two or more first-team All-ACC players 19 times. Only UNC, with 24, has more.

By contrast original league member Clemson has accomplished this once, Virginia three times.

Jones and Carey also made numerous All-America teams. Carey was second-team AP All-America, Jones third-team. AP is as close as we have to an accepted gold standard for this sort of thing and Duke has had at least one AP All-American for each of the last eight years, a stunning run of individual brilliance. Duke has had at least one player make some All-America team every year beginning in 2009; Duke counts DeMarcus Nelson as an honorable mention in 2008.

The team’s statistical profile resembles recent Duke teams. Duke led the league with 82.5 points per game. That’s the fourth time in seven years Duke has led the league in scoring. Duke also led the league with a 14.5 point per-game-differential, the seventh time in the last 11 seasons.

Individual statistics also confirm recent trends. Krzyzewski talked a lot about this being an old-school team, with veterans abounding. But his upperclassmen provided 21 percent of Duke’s points, 20 percent of Duke’s rebounds, 29 percent of Duke’s assists.

Still a young man’s game, at least at Duke. Duke’s top five scorers were underclassmen, freshmen or sophomores. Carey became the third consecutive freshman to lead Duke in scoring, the fifth in seven seasons. Sophomores Grayson Allen (2016) and Luke Kennard (2017) also led Duke in scoring during that span. We have to go back to Seth Curry in 2013 to find an upperclassmen leading the team in scoring.

That trend seems certain to continue next season, further evidence both of the young talent Duke keeps bringing into the program and the program’s dependence on that young talent.

Still, this all seems tangential to a season that ended with more questions than answers. Mike Krzyzewski will be 74 the next time March Madness kicks off. How many more madnesses does he have in him?

But it’s not just Duke. Leonard Hamilton likely had his best chance to advance to the Final Four. He’s 71. Mid-majors like Dayton, San Diego State and Creighton may not have this good a chance to go deep into March anytime soon.

So, we’re left to contemplate what-might-have-been and await testing and tracking and all the other things that hopefully will make this a discussion we will not be having this time next season.