It’s not the that the 2021 Duke Blue Devils suddenly were going to morph into the 1991 Blue Devils. It’s that the 2021 Blue Devils were starting to look like themselves — what the scouts and analysts suggested they’d be, what their coaches imagined was possible, what their fans hoped would emerge.
It’s over now, the cruelest end to a Blue Devils season since the last one. Maybe this is even worse. Last year’s team had a 25-6 record at the close of the regular season and a legitimate shot at doing Duke-type things in March, but when the global pandemic was declared, the NCAA Tournament was canceled a day later. So nobody got to enjoy March Madness. The Devils even received the small consolation of starring in the rebroadcast of the classic 1992 Elite Eight matchup with the Kentucky Wildcats.
This time, 68 teams will go on and play in the NCAAs. As Wednesday passed into Thursday, Duke still was unlikely to be one of them. But there was a chance. And then a positive COVID-19 test developed from someone in the team’s closest circle — called “Tier 1” in coronavirus protocol parlance — and the Blue Devils had to withdraw from the ACC Tournament.
There was bound to be some March sadness in a college basketball season that has been impacted so profoundly by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s weird that Duke will end its season without a defeat for the sixth time, but the other five all brought NCAA championships and this one will stop the program’s consecutive NCAA Tournament streak at 25.
Duke seemed as unlikely as anyone to depart the season in this manner. According to athletic director Kevin White, the Blue Devils made it through the entire season without a single positive test among its players and coaches.
“We are disappointed we cannot keep fighting together as a group after two outstanding days in Greensboro,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement from the university. “This season was a challenge for every team across the country, and, as we have seen over and over, this global pandemic is very cruel and is not yet over. As many safeguards as we implemented, no one is immune to this terrible virus.”
After completing the regular season with an 11-11 record, the Devils had played exceptionally well in the first two days of the tournament, though only four days earlier they had been non-competitive in a matchup with their fierce rival, North Carolina.
They were expected to defeat Boston College, but they blew out the Eagles from the jump and converted 15-of-32 from 3-point range. Louisville had swept Duke in the regular season, but the Devils owned the game, with developing 7-footer Mark Williams turning in a dominant, 23-point, 19-rebound performance. With quarterfinal opponent Florida State slumping to two losses in its previous three games, continued advancement for the Devils suddenly did not seem so fantastic. And the longer they stayed alive, the more realistic their NCAA Tournament chances became.
“While our season was different than any other that I can remember, I loved the 2020-21 Duke Basketball team and was honored to be their coach,” Krzyzewski said. “We have not asked more of any team in our history, and they deserve enormous credit for handling everything like the outstanding young men they are. I feel deeply for our players, who have done a terrific job all season in taking care of each other and the team.”
Duke’s misadventures through the winter of 2020-21 widely were ascribed to the general failure of the “one-and-done” model. Although both the Blue Devils (2015) and Kentucky (2012) have won NCAA championships by recruiting elite, five-star talent and quickly molding those gifted young men into significant teams, there is widespread resistance to the approach because it is non-traditional and unavailable to the majority of programs.
It’s a canard, of course. Kentucky reached the Elite Eight seven times, and four Final Fours, in its first 10 years of recruiting such players under John Calipari. Duke took its first step in the one-and-done direction in that 2014-15 season, and in addition to that championship reached two more Elite Eights in its first five seasons using that approach.
What this season revealed is that the one-and-done concept requires two things: actual one-and-done prospects, which neither Duke nor Kentucky had been able to attract this year, and at least some time through the summer, preseason and pre-conference schedule to mold such a young roster into a functional team.
Duke’s freshman class featured players rated 13 (forward Jalen Johnson), 23 (point guard Jeremy Roach), 26 (shooting guard DJ Steward), 26 (Williams) and 42 (power forward Jaemyn Brakefield). That’s a lot of apparent promise, but none of those players bore any resemblance to Jabari Parker to Jayson Tatum.
And at least part of their struggles resulted from the disrupted offseason training schedule necessitated by the pandemic, the erasure of exhibition games that often help teams and players to adjust to game situations, the shortened pre-conference schedule and then the shortening of that shortened schedule.
Duke played only one mid-major opponent before facing Michigan State in the Champions Classic, which became a loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium. There was another mid-major opponent prior to an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against Illinois, which turned into a second home loss. And then three tuneup-type games were postponed or canceled because of issues with the opponent’s availability before Krzyzewski decided his team needed a Christmas break more than it needed one of those matchups to be rescheduled.
Every moment of progress (consecutive wins against NCAA Tournament contenders Georgia Tech and Clemson) seemed to be followed by a considerable decline (a road loss to lower-tier ACC opponent Miami that launched a three-game losing streak).
Johnson departed the program not long afterward, a move that generated considerable controversy about how properly to term his actions and that seemed to doom the Devils to even less hope for a turnaround. They won their next three games, two against quality opponents, but with or without Johnson there has been no consistency of success.
So maybe the consecutive wins in the first two rounds of the ACC Tournament would have been followed by the defeat that would have, one last time, stamped the Devils as an NIT team. Maybe that “maybe” should be replaced by a “probably.”
This is March, though, and Duke is Duke, and anything might have happened. Except that now, nothing can.