I started watching a ton of college basketball around the time that conference play started. College football was down to its last few bowl games, and the NFL was heading into the playoffs, making for far fewer games to watch or follow. And one thing became clear to me pretty quickly.
This year’s Duke team was definitely better than usual.
The nation has gotten used to Duke failing to live up to its hype. Consider that since they won the national championship in 2010, their tournament results were:
- 2011 – lost in the Sweet 16 as a 1 seed
- 2012 – lost in the 1st round as a 2 seed
- 2013 – lost in the Elite 8 as a 2 seed
- 2014 – lost in the 1st round as a 3 seed
Only in 2013 did they perform up to their seed expectations. In those other 3 years, they fell multiple rounds short (2 rounds short in 2011, 3 in 2012, and 2 in 2014). This had been a pattern for them during the 2000s as well.
These choking Duke teams had a common thread. They were very good from the perimeter, but they were soft on the interior, both offensively and defensively. It was easy for a team with strong big men to push them around. In these early tournament losses, they ran into such teams, and allowed too many offensive rebounds and easy baskets.
This team was different because it had Jahlil Okafor (and “had” is official – he declared for the NBA draft today, as expected). He is a legitimate big man, a player of a variety we rarely see anymore. His game is near the basket. As I saw Duke for the first few times in January, I realized he was just stronger than everyone he matched up with and was going to assert himself on the interior. I started to think that Duke would go further than usual this year (though I didn’t pick them to win it all in any of my for-money brackets).
Another difference I noticed with this Duke team is the number of freshmen playing key roles. Typically, Mike Krzyzewski fields teams that are fairly reliant on upperclassmen. This Duke team’s best players were all freshmen: Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones. And thus, this article was posted on ESPN, about how Coach K’s adaptation to modern college basketball – the one and done system – is what won Duke the 2015 title.
Yes, this Duke team was great, but this is sensationalism at its finest. Teams need to follow the one and done approach to win it all now? The previous two champions would disagree.
The 2014 Connecticut Huskies were led by Shabazz Napier, a senior. Their next-most important players were junior Ryan Boatright and junior DeAndre Daniels. The 2013 Louisville Cardinals were led by senior Peyton Siva, and other key players included junior Russ Smith, junior Gorgui Dieng, and senior Luke Hancock. Not to mention that this year’s runner up, the Wisconsin Badgers, were led by upperclassmen. If a few plays go differently in the last few minutes Monday night, what would the narrative be? Probably something like this ESPN article from last April covering Connecticut’s defeat of Kentucky in the title game, explicitly mentioning that the more seasoned Huskies beat the mostly one-and-done Wildcats.
It is interesting how the story can’t simply be that one team beat the other. There must be some deeper meaning behind the game’s result, some higher truth that we all need to see. It can’t possibly be as simple as Duke becoming the aggressor and Wisconsin becoming far too passive and deliberate on offense after building a 9-point lead in the 2nd half, can it? Actually, it is that simple. Late in the game, Wisconsin seemed to make a point of dribbling and passing aimlessly around the perimeter until about 10 seconds on the shot clock, which helped Duke to force them into low-percentage shots. At the other end, Duke focused on taking the ball to the basket, allowing them to accumulate points on layups and free throws. This is why they came back and won the game.
We have no idea what the tournament field will look like next year and who will win it all. But I am confident in one thing: if a team led by juniors and seniors wins it, the narrative will be something along the lines of, “Team X proves that you still win with upperclassmen.” It’s just the world of sensational journalism that we live in.