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A Tar Heel Looks Back at the Devils' Season: Not the Usual Duke Trajectory

As if watching an entire season of UNC basketball wasn’t already punishment enough, the Duke contingent of the site has decided that each side of the rivalry should write the season wrap-up for the other side. Bart Matthews got the glorious honor of recapping the Heels’ season here - now it’s my turn to recap the Devils’ title run. Joy.

It’s been several weeks since Duke were officially crowned national champions, and the one thing that’s probably agreed upon by both sides of the rivalry is that the feeling is highly surreal. When UNC took the title in 2009, while it was probably defeating for Duke fans to watch that happen, they had to have seen it coming, as Carolina was clearly the best team in basketball that year. This Devils team, while certainly deserving of a title, never felt at any point during the season like it was destined to win one. The big question is whether we were blinded by the disappointment of Duke teams in years past to the point we failed to recognize how good this Duke team was throughout the season, or whether Duke exhibited the classic formula in a year where the best regular-season team isn’t the championship winner: show some chinks in the armor early, get hot in March, catch a few breaks and ultimately take home the title. After looking over the Devils’ season, it seems likely that it was a little bit of both of those elements that had everyone overlooking Duke when the brackets came out.

From the start, no one argued that Duke was a legit top-tier team, as they were ranked #5 to open the season. I think the biggest gap between perception and reality with the Devils early on is that I don’t remember any talk about Duke’s “Big Three” when the season started - everyone knew Scheyer and Singler would be able to pour in points, but I doubt any national expert could have told you Nolan Smith would score over 17 points per game for this team. Duke fans probably have a better pulse on this than me, and maybe someone saw it coming, but I certainly don’t recall it, and Smith being suspended for the first two games probably slowed the roll on the whole “Big Three” thing anyways. When Nolan did make it into the lineup, while he ably scored in double figures nearly every game, he struggled with efficiency, as evidenced by shooting 6-14 vs Arizona State, 5-22 vs. UConn, and 5-17 vs Wisconsin early on, all in succession.

The latter of those three games is one of the signposts of Duke’s season, pretty much all of which can be marked by losses, because there weren’t many. At each of these signposts, it seemed as though Duke fans and Duke haters alike convinced themselves that the Devils weren’t a true title contender because of some flaws exposed, despite the broader body of evidence available. This first loss, to an unranked Wisconsin team in the ACC-Big 10 challenge, was a departure for a Duke team that in recent years has steamrolled through its out-of-conference schedule, usually knocking off several formiddable opponents in the process, and fizzled later in the season. Interestingly enough, this Duke squad took the opposite trajectory (hence the headline!), although we wouldn’t realize it until much later in the season. Though the Wisconsin game was close throughout, the Badgers led from the opening tip and dictated the pace, leading Devils skeptics to believe Duke wasn’t a flexible enough team to play a grinding, halfcourt game - a sure sign of a team that could be felled in March. But this was truly just a shadow of the Duke team we would see later: the rebounding totals from the two teams were even (Zoubs hadn’t cracked the starting lineup yet), the Devils notched just two steals, got nearly half of its points from one source (Singler, with 28), and, most notably, got 12 points on 4-4 3pt shooting by Andre Dawkins. Pretty sure there was talk after this game that Dawkins would be the one to supplant Elliot Williams as the Devils’ dynamic guard scorer.

After that game, the first piece of Duke’s puzzle began to fall into place as Nolan Smith began to go on an offensive tear, working especially on his midrange game and developing an Ed-Cota-esque floater that everyone in Chapel Hill wishes Larry Drew can learn someday. Starting with a 76-41 demolition of a 15th-ranked Gonzaga team three games later, Nolan averaged nearly 22 points per game over the next 5 games, including a 10-18, 3-3 3pt, 24 point performance against said ‘Zags. I’m pretty sure this is where talk of a “Big Three” started to emerge, as Duke fans shaken a bit by their team’s inability to score against a tough Wisconsin D couldn’t have been more excited to have a reliable third option. The Big Three really took center stage against #18 Clemson, a team that (on paper) seemed to match up reasonably well against Duke and could give them trouble inside, but had no answer for the Devils’ offensive trio, as Singler, Smith and Scheyer scored 16, 22 and 22, respectively, in a 21-point whipping of the Tigers. Ok, so the first part was in place: a variety of offensive options. But the defense still needed a little work.

Now, before the Duke contingent jumps all over me, let me clarify that at no point in the season was the Devils’ defense BAD - they’ve always had really solid D, especially on the perimeter, which is something UNC fans would have killed for this season - but for some reason it just wasn’t a top-notch, nasty defense until the latter part of the year. This was only display on the next three signposts for Duke’s year: a 71-67 loss to Georgia Tech in which they got outrebounded 34-26 and the Jackets earned twice as many FTs, and an eyebrow-raising 88-74 loss to NC State in which the Wolfpack shot 58% from the field and got 53 points from their front line. Though Tech was ranked at the time, and certainly presented an athletic challenge for just about any team they faced, let’s face it: neither of those teams are what I would call “offensively gifted.” Then tag on an 89-77 pasting by Georgetown in front of a national audience in which the Hoyas shot 71% (!!!) from the field and absolutely embarrased the Devils

It was losses like this that allowed the Duke haters to continue to ignore the ways this team was progressing, convinced they would be out-toughed or taken down by someone with a gifted big man somewhere down the line. It also probably led Coach K to arrive at the same conclusion, as Brian Zoubek started seeing more minutes. Whether this was due to Miles Plumlee’s penchant for early foul trouble or by his own doing, when Z started getting more floor time Duke became a tougher team.

Beard Power, Engage!I honestly still can’t figure out exactly what changed for Zoubek, and its not as if people haven’t recognized his contributions to the team already, but it’s worth noting one more time that without Z becoming the player that he (finally) developed into down the stretch, the Devils almost certainly wouldn’t have won the title. It’s as if some magical transformation took place that created a rebounding monster out of a clumsy, laughable buffoon - previously an afterthought, he became a beast… personally, I’m convinced it was the beard. And honestly, I’m kind of happy for the guy. That’s the stuff cheesy sports movies are made of - a highly-touted recruit endures 4 years of failure to finally make the most of the last chance he’s given and ends up contributing in a major way to a title team. The first game K finally decided to insert him into the starting lineup, he racked up 17 boards and 16 points, destroying the Maryland frontcourt in a 21-point blowout. He ended up collecting double-digit rebounds in half of Duke’s remaining games, and grabbed 9 boards in two others. So the Devils finally had a frontcourt tandem with Z and Lance Thomas that, while not offensively powerful, could be counted on to outrebound, outhustle and pester just about any opponent into submission. It wasn’t an illusion - those guys had legitimate size and experience.

So that piece was now in place - the final hurdle Duke had to conquer was their tendency to struggle on the road, once again exposed in the final signpost of the Devils’ season, the loss at Maryland where the regular season title (and ACC POY honors, for all intents and purposes) was on the line. The Terps shot 50% from the field and Duke looked a little shaken down the stretch, so now the question Duke doubters turned to was the inevitable “How can this team expect to get to Indy when they really struggle away from home?” Honestly, I’m not sure that one ever had some sort of clear answer - it may have been Duke’s run of tight wins in the ACC tournament that turned the tide, but this was a team that picked the best time of year to start playing its best basketball.

Even heading into the NCAA tournament, those who doubted that Duke could win the title weren’t without decent reasons. There were teams that looked more versatile, had more impressive wins, matched up well with Duke, but in the end, none of those things mattered. As I mentioned before, this Duke team was incredibly reminiscent of UNC’s 1993 title team, that just took down its opponents in succession as other “contenders” dropped by the wayside. Let me say once and for all that this was a legitimate win - it doesn’t matter that Duke got the “easiest” bracket - that whole supposition goes out the window once upsets start happening anyways. They beat a tough Purdue team by being tougher. They beat an incredibly athletic and versatile Baylor team by showing themselves to be even more offensively versatile and able to run and score as pace demanded. They smothered a West Virginia team that was used to doing the suffocating themselves. And finally they ground out a game against a very able Butler squad, and proved they could win on the road, as the National Title game was basically an away contest.

Damn this team and this season recap - the hardest part of all of this is the conclusion, admitting some of the same things Bart said in his UNC conclusion: in a year where Roy struggled to motivate his players, Coach K found a way to buck the trends of past years and get his team to play its best basketball at the right time. And on top of admitting that, I have to also admit that despite the massive haterade bath Duke got before, during, and after the championship game, all in all this was a fairly likable team (you know…. for DUKE, anyways). They played together, defended well, seemed to genuinely like each other and be excited for each others’ successes, and in the end, were a worthy champion. Somehow, I still cannot bring myself to fully embrace the reality of all that I have just written - I grind my teeth remembering that this team won K his fourth national title, my heart quickens with hatred realizing that Singler’s return gives them a good shot at repeating as champs, and all I can hope for is that the infamous “disease of me” starts to infest this Blue Devil team next year. That or maybe an NCAA investigation that retroactively strips Duke of its title somehow… hey, a UNC fan can dream, right?