That’s right. I was wrong. A while back, I wrote an article questioning Coach K’s decision to begin selecting one-and-doners instead of players who would at least stay at Duke a few years before jumping to the NBA. My questions were based partially on Duke’s astonishing first round ousting in 2012 to Lehigh and 2014 to Mercer.
A primary point I was making is that if a team of guys play together and continue improving for three or four years, they’re a lot more likely to weather any team that is thrown at them during an NCAA tourney that requires six wins in fairly short order to claim the ultimate championship.
Duke Wars Through March Madness
This year, with a bevy of talented freshmen like Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen, Duke developed a rare chemistry that carried them through each game of the tournament. When Duke faced its first foe, surely the previous year’s loss to Mercer was on their minds, but the Blue Devils crushed Robert Morris.
Next came San Diego State, who could well have posed a defensive threat to Duke. But it was The Okafor Show as he controlled the paint quite easily. San Diego St. did get within seven points with 12 minutes left, but then Duke took control again.
Then came Utah, with size to match Okafor as well as Winslow. This was a tougher challenge for Duke but Winslow came up big in this game with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
Many thought Duke might run out of gas with a seasoned Gonzaga team that was 35-2, having even taken Arizona to overtime. Gonzaga had its chances, especially with Okafor not being his usual dominant self in the paint. But other Duke players came up big and Winslow scored seven points during a crucial point in the game and Duke won by 14 in a game that was much closer than the closing score indicates.
Then, Duke had to face a red-hot Michigan State team that had shocked many by steam-rolling Virginia, Oklahoma, and Louisville. Duke showed just how excellent this team was by man-handling the Spartans by 20 points.
Facing the Scrappy Badgers
I was sort of hoping that Kentucky would win against Wisconsin so that Duke could be the one to possibly break that season-long winning streak. But the fact that Wisconsin scratched and clawed to a win indicated just how much they’d improved since Duke beat the Badgers by 10 on their home floor earlier in the season.
The first half of the Duke-Wisconsin final was a classic dog fight with the lead changing hands multiple times and the buzzer sounding with a 31-31 tie. Okafor was struggling, after committing his second foul early and missing a few lay-ins.
I was shouting instructions to Okafor and my wife peeked through the doorway, wondering who I was yelling at. I said, “Okafor,” and she said it sounded like a tree. “Yeah,” I said, “a monster oak.”
Blue Devils: Foul Trouble & Dangerous Deficit
The initial minutes of the second half did not bode well for Duke. Winslow also was in foul trouble, and both big guys spent time on the bench. I felt sick to my stomach when Wisconsin took a 9-point lead at the 13:23 mark.
This was probably the most dangerous point in the game for Duke. The Badgers had the momentum, they were suddenly super energized, and Duke could have easily panicked and missed shots or made dumb turnovers.
But Grayson Allen, of all people, suddenly took control. He zipped in a crisp 3-pointer. Then, he got a steal, crushed a dunk, and made a bonus free throw. Not finished yet, he got fouled again and scored both free throws.
Duke was suddenly back in the game, down only four – 51-47.
The Gutsy Comeback
Then, Tyus Jones made a jumper, got fouled and made the free throw. Wisconsin made a 3-pointer but Winslow added two free throws to cut the Badger lead to 54-52. Tyus made another jumper to tie the score at 7:05. Then, Allen made a brilliant layup at 5:29 and Duke went ahead by two. I didn’t realize I was yelling at the TV until my wife peered into the den and said, “Could you please hold it down? I’m trying to sleep in here.”
Nail in the Coffin
I said I’d try. Wisconsin scored two but then Tyus nailed an insane 3-pointer at 4:09 to make it 59-58. Okafor had been rather ineffective most of the game but he chose this moment to come alive. He hit two trademark layups at 3:14 and 2:08 to give Duke a lead, 63-58. Tyus nailed the dagger home with a gutsy 3-pointer at 1:24 to make it 66-58. Wisconsin scored a few and reached 63, but Tyus made two free throws at 35 seconds to make the final score 68-63.
Duke had done the impossible.
Now, I’m not going to claim that Duke will keep winning championships with one-year stars, but this year at least proved that it can be done even at a place like Duke that emphasizes their top level education and has a great athlete graduation record.
This FanTake was written and submitted by Steve Fortosis. FanTakes are a place for you the fan to voice your opinions. If you are interested in writing your own FanTake, just send us an email.