After everything that Duke had been through this season, between the injuries and the trips and the back surgeries, what did the Blue Devils in, what sent them back to Durham after the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, were the issues we all knew they had back in October.
And we all should have seen it coming.
Sunday’s second round loss wasn’t the result of an internal power struggle over whose team this is. It wasn’t the result of a lack of leadership. It wasn’t due to slow starts or missed time or freshmen inexperience.
Duke lost, quite simply, because their roster is — was — flawed, and the individual talent amongst their ranks was not enough to overcome it.
Duke didn’t get the stops that they needed to get, and the lack of a natural point guard on their roster was never more evident than when facing the athleticism, physicality and pressure provided by South Carolina, one of the nation’s elite defensive teams. The No. 7 seed Gamecocks scored 65 second half points and second-seeded Duke committed 18 turnovers in an 88-81 loss in Greenville in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The lack of a true point guard on the roster is not something that really had hurt Duke all that often the season, and it reached the point where that issue no longer seemed like a talking point with this team. There were times where their offense would get bogged down, like in each of the final three ACC tournament games that they played, but eventually Duke’s talent would take over. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski, at times, would opt for the ‘Do Him!’ offense: Instead of calling a set play, he’d get the ball into Jayson Tatum’s hands, or Luke Kennard’s hands, or Grayson Allen’s hands, and just let them go.
When there are three guys on your roster that can create a good shot out of nothing, sometimes the best thing a coach can do is to get out of their way and let them work.
That’s how Duke made all those crazy second half comebacks last week.
But that didn’t work against South Carolina. For the first time all season, Duke ran into a team whose perimeter players were good enough defensively that this ‘offense’ was never going to be effective. Allen finished with 20 points, but he was 5-for-13 from the floor and, playing as the primary ball-handler, finished with two assists and three turnovers. Tatum had 15 points and shot 6-for-12 from the field, but he had five turnovers and never looked comfortable going one-on-one, where he may be the best isolation scorer in the country. Kennard made one shot before fouling out.
“[South Carolina] played a heck of a game,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “That was the toughest defense we’ve played all year. Very physical.”
And without the presence of a true point guard on the roster, Duke didn’t really have another option, because whether they were facing South Carolina’s man-to-man or their matchup zone, running sets wasn’t working.
The bigger issue, however, was probably on the defensive end of the floor, where South Carolina scored 65 second half points, a higher total than the Gamecocks managed in nine games this season. They shot 71.4 percent from the floor in the second half, hitting 4-for-5 from three and 21-for-23 from the foul line. They made 18 of their first 24 shots in the second half.
Duke’s defense, which has been much maligned all year long, lived up to the precedent.
It didn’t hurt, either, that South Carolina was playing in front of a raucous, partisan crowd. The game was in Greenville, S.C., meaning that there wasn’t a shortage of Gamecock fans in the building. Once it became clear that South Carolina was in this thing, the fans wearing Garnet and Black were joined by those in Carolina Blue in rooting for the Blue Devils to bow out early.
And once the tide started to turn, once the crowd in Greenville started to get behind South Carolina, everyone watching on TV could see them start to feed off of that energy.
If Krzyzewski wasn’t happy about the NCAA’s decision to move the first round out of North Carolina before the weekend, I can’t imagine the angry phone voice mails Dan Gavitt is going to get from him tonight.
But I digress.
This weekend was, in a way, a perfectly fitting ending for Duke’s season. Every time we thought they were back, they’d go and lose to N.C. State or Syracuse. When we thought it was time to pull the plug on the hype train, they’d find a way to win games they didn’t have any business winning.
And when we all thought the East Region opened up for Duke after No. 1 overall seed Villanova got dropped by Wisconsin, the Blue Devils got steamrolled by a team that lost six of their last nine games before the start of the tournament. They gave up 88 points to a team that scored 86 points in a four-overtime home loss in February. They gave up 65 second half points to a team that scored fewer than that in ten games this season, winning five of them.
They couldn’t get stops when they needed to get stops.
They couldn’t run offense when they needed to run offense.
So while the legacy this team is going to leave is one of ‘What could have been?’, that’s probably wrong, because this team was less of an enigma than we realized.
They were super-talented, but Coach K had himself a flawed roster, one that lacked a defensive backbone and a true point guard.
Because of that, they were a team that we — I — overrated all along.