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Duke’s Early Anointing

News Flash for the Unenlightened:

This year’s Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team has already been anointed among the greatest of all time. After one game.

Yes, that game was against Kentucky, presumably the second ranked team in the nation. And yes, the Blue Devils won by 34, putting up an absurd 118 points en route to that victory.

Full disclosure: I am a Duke fan, and it was exciting to see Duke put a “whoopin,’”, as my cousin and fellow Duke fan would say, on Calipari’s Wildcats. But I see no reason to already assume Duke will romp to the National Championship game in April unscathed. Most who follow college basketball may note that Duke has had plenty of early season success over the course of the last decade.

Duke prides itself on playing, and often beating quality teams early in the season. Coach K is brilliant at preparing his teams for the pressure cooker of grinding out games in a variety of different arenas.

Consider the 2012-2013 Blue Devils, for example. In their first seven games, Duke beat three top five teams (Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State.) Their NCAA tournament result? A 22 point loss to Louisville in the Elite Eight.

Even last season, the Blue Devils beat two top ten teams early in the season (Michigan State and Florida) only to lose to Kansas in the Elite Eight. This is also the same Duke University that has lost NCAA Tournament games to Mercer and Lehigh.

They’ve often been preseason darlings, sporting top ranked recruiting classes and attaining rankings in the top five, chosen by many to reach Final Fours and win championships. That’s not to say Duke hasn’t been successful – many schools would love a trip to the Elite Eight. But this is Duke. With a blue blood basketball program like Duke, each season is Final Four or bust. Those losses to Lehigh and Mercer? Not merely embarrassing, but also borderline unacceptable.

Yes, Kentucky lost to Duke in an embarrassing fashion. But it would be as unwise to count Calipari and his Wildcats out as it would be to hand Duke the national title already.

Remember, Calipari took a team seeded eighth in the 2014 NCAA tournament and nearly won the national championship with them. Come March, anything can and will happen. The college basketball season is a marathon, not a sprint. Is this an exciting Duke team to watch? Absolutely. I’d be lying if, as a Duke fan, I said I wasn’t positively giddy at the thought of Zion Williamson dunking on the Tar Heels this season. But early expectations should be tempered just a tad.

Duke will dominate many of their games this season, that much is for certain. As with any ACC team, however, the grind of conference play and unpredictability of the season will likely hand Duke some defeats.

An injury could disrupt Duke’s rhythm (remember Kyrie Irving?) or the freshmen might actually look like, well, freshmen. And Duke fans, this is a good thing! Every championship team must face some adversity.

In 1990, the script was flipped – Duke lost to UNLV by 30 points in the national championship game. In 1991, Coach K and company played a perfect game to beat UNLV in the Final Four, proving UNLV was not invincible. I do look forward to seeing how this Duke team meshes and whether it can, in fact, live up to its premature anointing.

Duke’s 2014-2015 national title team was young and benefitted from some favorable matchups during their tournament run. Whether this season’s Blue Devils can have a similar combination of luck and grit remains to be seen.

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2 Responses

  1. You are spot on. The media loves to hype things up and declare champions after one game. You mentioned “injury” as the wild card and it totally is. Seasons are long and grinding and anything can happen. The media has to ignore the reality of injuries because it would hamper postulation possibilities if we admitted one injury can change everything.

  2. Injuries can and usually do change things, but if this team stays healthy, I think they have a very good chance to win it all. They have the projected top-three picks in next year’s NBA draft. To me, that’s too much for anybody else to match up with. Buuuuuut, it’s college basketball and anything can happen, and there could be that team that goes on a magical run that ruins everything. Remember how Kentucky almost went undefeated back in 2014-15? I live in Madison, WI. I remember how Kentucky ALMOST went undefeated. 🙂

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