It was not supposed to end like this for Duke. As Cassius Winston slipped past the Duke defense into the open court, the Blue Devils could only watch in disbelief as the horn sounded and Michigan State players and coaches stormed the court in a jubilant celebration. After 40 minutes of riveting back and forth action, the Spartans pulled off a one point upset, ending Duke’s season by a final score of 68-67. During the post- game interviews in the Duke locker room, the dejection was palpable and the emotion was visible. R.J. Barrett paused in the middle of his interview to console his sobbing teammate, fellow freshman Tre Jones.
“If you weren’t a Duke fan, everyone wanted to see us fail,” Jones said, still fight- ing back tears. “All the adversity, it made us so close as a group. We all wanted to win so bad, and that's what hurts so much."
Unfortunately for Jones and Duke, this group will only get one chance to accomplish their NCAA tournament dreams. In the era of one-and-done, teams made up of star freshmen often get only one opportunity to win an NCAA championship before those freshmen depart for the NBA. At prestigious basketball programs such as Duke, successes are measured in championships, and this squad clearly fell short of that mark. With such a high standard in place, combined with the collection of talent Duke assembled this season, many have deemed this season a failure by falling short of the Final Four. Duke certainly did not achieve its ultimate goal; however, this season was not a failure, but rather a disappointment.
To borrow a phrase from the selection committee, “it is about the full body of work.” If Duke’s body of work this season had consisted of a loss to UCF in the round of 32 or even a loss to Virginia Tech in the sweet 16, which it very easily could have, I would have agreed that Duke’s season was a failure. However, losing a game in the Elite Eight to a Michigan State team deserving of a No. 1 seed, combined with earning the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and an ACC Tournament championship does not make Duke’s entire season a failure at all.
While March Madness is one of the most exciting times of the year, it is possibly the worst way in sports to crown a champion. The sheer randomness of the tournament can—and often does—create a result that “experts” can only hope to predict. To quote two-time NCAA championship coach Billy Donovan, “The NCAA tournament is not always won by the best team. It crowns a champion that wins six consecutive games.”
What truly makes this season a disappointment rather than a failure for Duke though is that for much of the year, Duke was the best team in the country. With a healthy Zion Williamson on the floor, Duke only lost three games, including Sunday’s loss to the Spartans. They spent a majority of the regular season as the No. 1 ranked team in the country and ended that way as well, earning 58 of a possible 64 first place votes in the final Associated Press poll of the season.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski summed up his team’s year best when he said, “They're deserving of special things, and they have had a special year, but not going to the Final Four is obviously a huge disappointment for us," Coach K said.
If one of the greatest, if not the greatest, college basketball coach of all time refuses to call this season a failure, I will take his word for it.
Contact Zachary Schiller at firstname.lastname@example.org.