Duke never got better.
They peaked, quite literally, on the first day of the season, a 118-84 beatdown of then-No. 2 Kentucky that many of us, myself included, just could not get out of our heads.
That team was the best team in the country on that day, and there isn’t a soul on the planet that would argue that fact rationally. But the reason that a roster featuring Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones got bounced in the Elite Eight — after they should have been bounced in the second round and could have been bounced in the Sweet 16 — is because the team they were that day is the team they were on Sunday, when Michigan State sent them back to Durham, 68-67.
Duke never got better.
College basketball caught up.
It’s not the first time that head coach Mike Krzyzewski has struggled to find a way to make a roster full of uber-talented freshmen work. Early exits from the NCAA tournament have become fairly common for the Blue Devils, but I’ll stop short of criticizing the man for losing by one point to the team that won both the regular season and tournament titles in the toughest conference in the country. It’s the same reason I refused to criticize Duke for failing to get to the Final Four last year, when Grayson Allen’s game-winning jumper pulled an Aubrey Dawkins and rolled off the wrong side of the rim.
In a one-game knockout events, the margins really are that fine.
That said, Coach K is not beyond reproach for the way that he managed this team and this season.
I will go to my grave saying that the best lineup that Duke could have put out on the floor featured Zion Williamson at the five. He can protect the rim. He’s not going to get beaten on the block by many, if any, college bigs. He’s a terrific defensive rebounder that can grab-and-go with the best of them. Would that have put him at risk of getting into foul trouble? Probably. Would he have worn down more quickly playing the five? Maybe. But it is frustrating that we didn’t end up getting more of Williamson at the five.
And, frankly, there is a reason for that.
Duke’s perimeter options never showed up the way Duke needed them to. the 0-for-10 performance that Jack White posted against Syracuse damaged his confidence so badly that he wouldn’t hit another three for nearly seven weeks, and he was the guy that could have made a difference. He was big enough to help shoulder the load in the paint. He could protect the rim. He was a better perimeter defender than some folks realize. And, in theory, he could shoot. His regression was another part of the long-term problem for this group.
And if we’re being honest, “in theory, he could shoot” is more or less a perfect way to sum up everyone on this Duke team.
Because the whole they-can’t-make-threes conundrum never went away. Duke finished the season 327th nationally in three-point percentage. Cam Reddish, who frustrated everyone until the final seconds of the season, ended the year with a lower three-point percentage than Williamson. R.J. Barrett ended the year shooting 30.8 percent, which was significantly higher than either White or Tre Jones shot. Their best shooter, Alex O’Connell, wasn’t strong enough with the ball or good enough defensively to earn consistent minutes. For him to see the court, one of the star freshmen had to sit or Duke had to roll with a frontline of Williamson, Barrett and Reddish, and Coach K wasn’t having that.
Perhaps the biggest indictment was that Williamson, once again, went the final three possessions without getting a shot off. It’s the same thing that happened in the loss to Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational.
Like I said, Duke never got better.
It wasn’t all bad for Coach K.
For the majority of the year, he actually schemed up some pretty good sets to create just enough space to allow Barrett and Williamson to get downhill going left. He won a couple of games by the timely switching of defenses. He had everyone in the program on the same page, playing together and playing hard and caring about each other. In the one-and-done era, that’s not the easiest thing to do.
But this season will be remembered for the fact that Duke never figured out an answer to their flaws.
And they never changed the things that needed changing.
That, unfortunately, falls on Coach K.