I want to tell you a story of one of my favorite non-Duke college basketball seasons.
The year was 2011. Ann Arbor was still a college football town, and Michigan fans were still unsold on whether John Beilein could bring the basketball program back to relevance, let alone prominence. After a 1-6 start in conference play, there were rumblings that Beilein’s seat might even be a bit warm.
Those Wolverines were young, with no seniors on the roster. The only two juniors were Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, Beilein’s first real recruits at Michigan. Both were arguably not even 3* caliber players, but Beilein wanted shooters for his system. And while both had clear limitations beyond their shooting prowess, they also both played incredibly hard. Novak, listed generously at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, commonly ended up guarding the opponents’ big men, and did so surprisingly well. Alongside them, young talent was finally trickling into the program, with sophomore Darius Morris budding with potential at the point, and future NBA-vet Tim Hardaway Jr. a freshman.
So, sitting at 1-6 in conference and with an NCAA tournament bid a longshot, expectations changed for that Michigan squad. Each game became about the development of the young core, enjoying the unique scrappiness of Douglass and Novak, and hoping to pull some upsets. And boy did they ever.
Spurred by a now legendary victory over rival Michigan State in East Lansing, the Wolverines won eight of their last 11 games to finish the conference season at .500. They made it to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals and made the NCAA Tournament easily as an 8-seed. And, bringing our story full circle, they fell to Duke in the Round of 32 in a surprisingly-competitive two point affair.
Why bring this up the day after a heartbreaking loss to North Carolina that has many ringing the death knell on Duke’s season? It’s not to say that there are direct parallels between the 2011 Wolverines and 2021 Blue Devils: after all, the talent levels and expectations for both squads couldn’t be much more divergent. But Duke’s position at the beginning of February does have clear parallels to the 2011 Michigan squad, with a very narrow but existent path to the NCAA Tournament and a fanbase beginning to lose faith.
The 2011 Wolverines were never going to win the National Championship, and most realistic Duke fans will now agree that goal is a pipe dream for this year’s squad too. But there was still joy in rooting for an underdog squad to go against the odds and squeak into the tournament in 2011. And if Duke fans start viewing this Duke team through the lens of it’s current limitations, rather than constantly in comparison to the Blue Devils’ illustrious past, there’s still fun to be had with this squad.
There’s the grittiness of Jordan Goldwire, one of the unlikeliest leaders of a Blue Devil squad in recent memory. There’s the spark shown over the past few games by Henry Coleman and Mark Williams, two freshmen who could provide a bedrock for Duke’s frontcourt for years to come. There’s the continued development of a young but talented backcourt duo in Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward who also could stay in Durham longer than fans have grown accustomed to and lead a more experienced squad next season. And there’s two special talents in Matthew Hurt and Jalen Johnson who will allow Duke to remain competitive in every game they play down the stretch.
This February will be a very different one for Blue Devil fans, and for this team. But giving up on them now based on the expectations from years prior risks losing out on a unique story and experience that Duke fans haven’t had in decades. This team will have to fight their way into the tournament, and may need some outside luck to do so. Yet seasons of that sort are a part of the experience of most every college basketball fan not rooting for a traditional “Blue Blood,” and are enjoyable in their own right.
Now is the time for Duke fans to embrace this team and this unique season for what it is, and hopefully the players will do the same. If they do, there’s no reason why the miraculous comeback of the 2011 Wolverines can’t be replicated by the 2021 Blue Devils. And wouldn’t it be a shame to miss out on that?