• Gabe Bottazzi

Duke Disappoints: The Fabulous Freshmen Fail to Reach the Final Four

Updated: Apr 29, 2019

March Madness is one of the most electrifying spectacles in all of sports with a variety of wild finishes, unpredictable outcomes, and shocking upsets. Millions of people around the country fill out the 68-team bracket to pick a winner of the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament. The number overall seed of the entire tourney and favorite to win it all was the Duke Blue Devils. Their team has received a significant amount of media attention throughout the entire college basketball season due to their sensational freshman who are some of the highest rated recruits to come out of high school. Their point guard, Tre Jones, was a highly touted point guard coming out of Minnesota and is the younger brother of former Blue Devil National Champion, Tyus Jones. Cam Reddish, a prominent prospect hailing from Pennsylvania, possesses unique size for a forward with great shooting ability, attracting the attention of NBA scouts. RJ Barrett, a dynamic guard from Canada, was ranked as the number one player in the country due to his uncanny knack for scoring and distributing the ball at an elite level. While these three freshmen are all talented in their own right, they all fall in comparison to the most extraordinary player to come out of high school since LeBron James, Zion Williamson. Zion has gained a huge social media following due to his gravity-defying dunks in high school games that leave fans in astonishment on how a player at 6’7, 285lbs could get up so high. He dunks with such ferocity that nobody dares to stand in his path. Zion’s unique combination of brute strength and agile athleticism make him the most intriguing young athlete the game of basketball has witness since King James was dominating the high school circuit.

The notion that all of these talented freshman chose a storied program like Duke to attend and play basketball makes them the most notable freshman starting lineup since Michigan’s “Fab 5” in the 1990’s. Duke’s new squad carried a huge chip on their shoulder from the opening game of the season with all of the crazy hype surrounding them and the Blue Devils did not disappoint. Led by their legendary leader Coach K, Duke stormed into Kentucky and annihilated Coach Calipari’s Wildcats by 34 points while introducing America to these fantastic freshmen phenomenons. This game foreshadowed Duke’s utter brilliance for the majority of their regular season. Each Duke game was must-see TV as ESPN made sure to cover Zion and co as much as possible because of how entertaining they were playing borderline professional-level basketball. Duke orchestrated their offense with such ease, as Zion’s rise to greatness seemed definite, playing the game of collegiate basketball like a grown man amongst boys.

Despite a couple of humbling losses, Duke continued their winning ways in a entertaining fashion, playing a fun up-tempo style of basketball, leading to some eye-popping slams by Zion along the way. One of Duke first big tests of their season was engaging in the historic rivalry with North Carolina. The mass anticipation of this game was mainly due to the Zion hype and as a result, sparked prestigious guest appearances of the likes of former President Barack Obama. What ended up transpiring happened so fast; the game literally just commenced and a freakish injury occurred out of nowhere. The unfortunate player that it happened to was none other than Zion Williamson. He got the ball at the top of the key and was beginning to make his usual strides towards the basket as he made a spin move on UNC forward Luke Maye. At that moment, it appeared that his leg gave out from underneath him and all the immense pressure being so big proceeded into his sneakers with his left shoe completely tearing off through his own foot as he fell to the hardwood in agony. What became to be the most shocking moment of the college basketball season, Zion left the game with what appeared to be a serious knee injury as he gingerly walked off into the locker room and did not return. Duke was unable to overcome the Zion injury as it clearly affected the team’s morale. The Blue Devils went on to lose at home to their rival Tar Heels by double digits.

The devastating injury to Zion garnered national attention and caused speculation as to whether or not he will decide to play the rest of the season. It was not a serious knee injury, but reporters and analyst argued if it was best for Zion to forgo the remainder of his college career because he is a guaranteed lock to be the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. It also brought the “college athletes should be paid into discussion, as the NCAA has been utilizing the rising fame of Zion to boost their ratings and gain massive revenue. He was a by-product of a corrupt system where all the money was going to everyone in power, but him that includes the University, the Coaches, the NCAA, and the vast television networks covering his games. Many believed it make sense for him to just sit, so he would not be exploited anymore while declaring for the draft because he will be a multi-millionaire in just a few months. The NBA has even been looking into their rule where they require players to attend one year of college before entering their name in the draft. Lowering the age of eligibility to 18 again would aid in allowing players that feel as though they are talented enough for the next level like Zion instead of having to deal with the repercussions of the NCAA, who have the upmost ultimate control.

The next 5 games for Duke in Zion’s absence, exposed how surprisingly mediocre they were without their superstar forward after losing games to Virginia Tech and to North Carolina again within that span. RJ, Tre, and Cam looked lost without their intimating leader, as Duke’s offensive and defense were not as cohesive as it was prior to Zion’s injury. Although they managed to stay afloat as a top 5 team in the country, many affirmed that Duke had slim chances to make any noise in the tournament without Zion, who won the ACC player of the year. RJ Barrett led the ACC in scoring, but at times played with a selfish mentality in terms of how he would go into “hero ball,” forcing the issue in the waning minutes of a few of the games in which Zion was absent. Thankfully for Duke, who had championship aspirations, they were able to get Zion back for the ACC Tournament. His presence was immediately felt as he had a perfect game against Syracuse going 13-13 from the field along with a few incredible highlight dunks to the satisfaction of his team and fans alike. The Blue Devils went on to avenge their losses to the Tar Heels as they were able to squeak by with a one point win being led by Zion’s 31 points and 11 rebounds. In the ACC Championship game, Duke was able to handle Florida State’s scoring runs to win the ACC crown by 10 points thanks to the stellar play of not only Zion, but Tre Jones and RJ Barrett as well.

Winning a conference tournament game guarantees a team an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, which is every college player’s dream to participate on the national stage. Of course for Duke, they did not need the automatic bid to gain entry into the tourney as they were selected by the NCAA committee as the number one overall seed of the entire tournament. The fact of the matter was, Duke had Zion Williamson, and the rest of the 67 teams did not. So when the Blue Devils faced North Dakota State in the first round, it was no surprise they were able to dismantle the 16 seed with such ease even after a brief shaky start to the game. In the round of 32, Zion and co went up against a scrappy UCF team that was coached by former Duke standout and NBA great Johnny Dawkins. This game was arguably the most exciting one of the entire tournament due to the back and forth pace it was played at. UCF was not backing down to the mighty Blue Devils, as they seemed to have an answer to every Duke run that was led by Zion and RJ who combined for more than half the team’s points. The Knights played an intense, gritty game thanks to the presence of their 7’6 center Tacko Fall who did not back down to Zion and seemed to at times subdue him when he tried to attack the basket. While Zion is a future number one pick in the draft, the best player on the floor that night was the son of the UCF’s coach, Aubrey Dawkins.

The NCAA Tournament is the perfect time to showcase talent for the world watching, and Dawkins made sure to let people know that he can flat out play. He was unconscious with the degree of difficulty of the shots he was making from step back jumpers to contested three pointers as he finished the game with 32 points. Dawkins had an answer for every offensive run made by Duke to keep them in the game. As a result of his play and the overall fluidity of UCF’s offense prowess, they were nurturing a three-point lead with 45 seconds left after BJ Taylor knocked down two free throws. In response, Duke was looking to the tie the game in the waning seconds on their next possession as Zion took a line-drive three which clanked off the rim. Thankfully, Javin DeLaurier was able to secure an offensive rebound that gave the Blue Devils another crack at sending the game to overtime. He passes the ball back to Zion, who instead of shooting another three, utilizes his strength and athleticism to drive to the basket and goes right at Tacko Fall. He initiates contact with the tallest player in college basketball and was able to muscle the ball into the basketball while drawing the foul. This play was tremendous not only because he made the shot, but also Zion was able to get Tacko Fall to pick up his fifth foul and be disqualified for the remainder of the game. Zion then goes to the line looking to tie the game with 14 seconds left, and to the dismay of Duke, he missed it. Sometimes its best to be in the right place at the right time and for RJ Barrett he was right next to the basket after the Zion miss to clean it up for the put back go-ahead bucket for Duke. UCF had once final chance to win the game as Coach Dawkins drew up a play for their All-Conference player BJ Taylor as he drove to the basket on the right side against Tre Jones. He put up a running layup, but shot it too strong as it came off the left side of the rim. Out of nowhere, Aubrey Dawkins comes flying in to try and tip in the potential game winner to cap off his sensational performance. This however, would not be the case as the put back attempt rolled off the rim as Duke seemed to have tremendous luck on their side with the nail biter victory to advance to the Sweet 16.

The basketball Gods appeared to be on Duke’s side once again as they played their next game against fellow ACC opponent, Virginia Tech. This was another tough test for the Blue Devils as the Hokies came into the game with the full intent to win in order to advance to the Elite 8. Duke was without their third wheel scoring option, Cam Reddish who suffered a knee injury the game prior. It was a highly contested battle throughout with both teams giving up no ground. At the end of the first half, the Hokies held on to a 4 point lead against the Blue Devils thanks to help of their star player Kerry Blackshear Jr. In the second half, Duke began to reach their stride and showcase why they were considered the best number one seed in the entire tournament. The game prior, Tre Jones was given wide-open shots by UCF because they did not believe he could knock down perimeter shots. The scouting report seemed to carry over into the Sweet 16, as the Hokies were giving Jones a lot of space showing they did not respect his shooting abilities. Clearly, the comments about his shooting affected Tre Jones as he took matters into his own hands in the second half as he knocked down key three point shots to keep Virginia Tech at bay. He made 5 out of 7 three pointers that came huge in this close game. Zion once again was his dominant self, efficiently scoring in the paint to tally 23 points including a timely dunk to put them up 7 with 3 minutes left. RJ Barrett came ready to play as well as he put up a double-double with 18 points in 11 assists looking like a premiere floor general when his team needed to him to produce.

As the game proceeded on, it looked as though Duke would comfortably win this game. However, unfortunate turnovers, fouls, and missed free throws by Zion and Tre gave Virginia Tech a shot to be within striking distance of closing the gap. Jones missed the first of a one and one that gave the Hokies a chance to tie or take the lead being only down to with the score at 75-73. On their following possession, the Hokies go to Ty Outlaw, who had been a non-factor all night. That trend for him continued as Outlaw shot the three attempting to give his team the lead, but he missed badly. To the luck of the Hokies, the ball ricocheted off Duke Players to go out of bounds with .6 seconds remaining on the clock. Virginia Tech called timeout to draw up one last play to try and win the game or send it into overtime. The player that inbounded the ball for Virginia Tech throw up a nice lob to their animated forward Ahmed Hill as leaped toward to basket to try and lay the ball in. To the misfortune of the Hokies, Hill shorted the shot as the ball clanked off the side of the rim. Zion’s presence from behind definitely affected his shot as he rushed it and resulted in Duke once again surviving to advance to the Elite 8.

The next round for Duke would be the toughest game yet as they went up against legendary coach Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans, who were a number 2 seed in the tournament. They were led by Big Ten Player Of The Year Cassius Winston, a dynamic point guard with a great shot and possessed great basketball IQ. Duke was thankful to have Cam Reddish be available to participate in the game after resting last contest with the knee injury making his return off the bench. The game commenced and Duke started off slow as their offensive rhythm was lacking and Michigan State took advantage jumping out to a 16-9 lead early. It took some time, but RJ Barrett began to make his presence known, converting on an assortment of tough drives to the basket, and jump shots to help get Duke back in the game. A pair of free throws from Cam Reddish gave the Blue Devils their first lead. Duke then went on a 12-0 run as a result of perimeter shots made by the talented trio of Zion, RJ, and Cam giving them a 9-point lead with five minutes remaining in the half. Things began to look promising for the Blue Devils, but then their best player, Zion Williamson picked up his third foul and resulting in him being subbed out. As the regular season clearly exemplified, Duke is not the same intimating team with Zion not on the floor and Michigan State fully utilized this opportunity to go on a scoring run on their own. With Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman leading the charge with an assortment of layups in traffic and jumpers, Michigan State closed the half on an astounding 13-0 run that included capitalizing on a bad pass by Zion to Cam who was not looking at the ball.

The momentum shifted to the Spartans as they opened up the second half as Kenny Goins splashed a jump shot to push their lead to 6. Suddenly Duke began to surge as Zion came right back with a line drive three pointer as the Blue Devils looked to erase the deficit. They were able to briefly gain back the lead after a Tre Jones layup, but the Blue Devils were unable to establish distance between themselves and the Spartans who battled until the very end. The lead changes and ties were frequent in the closing minutes of the game as Cassius Winston was converting on timely baskets and spot on passes to teammates for assists. He finished the contest with 20 points and 10 assists, as he controlled the pace of the entire game. While Zion and RJ combined for 67 percent of the team’s points, the vast majority of the other players on Duke were a non factor besides Javin DeLaurier, who shot perfect from the field and came up with timely baskets and offensive rebounds down the stretch, resulting in him garnering a double-double. Even though Zion and RJ both scored over 20 points, they combined to commit 12 timely turnovers that resulted in many conversions by Michigan State. Despite Duke being careless the ball, they held a three point lead after Zion’s tough layup in traffic with 1 minute and 41 seconds left in the game. The following possession for Michigan State was successful with Tillman converting on a layup to trim the lead of Duke to 1. Looking to put the game out of reach, Coach K decided to give RJ the green light to try and ice it for the Blue Devils. What ended up transpiring was not to the liking of Duke fans and those that filled out brackets with Duke winning it all. RJ decided to play hero ball on the next couple possessions coming up empty each time. After a RJ miss, Coach Tom Izzo called a timeout to draw up a play to get his team the lead for good. Cassius Winston set a screen on Zion to get Kenny Goins wide open for a straight away three pointer and he drilled it to give Michigan State a 68-66 lead with 34 seconds remaining. Coach K again calls RJ’s number as he shot a three to try and take the lead, but it barely grazed the rim. After Cam and McQuaid of Michigan State dived for the loose ball, Duke was given another possession. Off the inbound, RJ gets the ball and drives in as he is battered by two Michigan States defenders to draw the foul. The pressure seemed to have gotten to RJ as he was shooting the most important free throws of his life. He shot the first one, and over shot it as it bounced off the rim. It was a must make and he was unable to convert, so RJ tried to intentionally miss the second free throw in hopes of one of his teammates being able to get the offensive rebound for a put back. He shoots the second free throw trying to miss, it hits the rim, bounces high in the air and falls goes through the hoop to the dismay of Coach K. The only hope Duke had was to intentionally foul in order to extend the game. Michigan State inbounds the ball, but in a split second, RJ loses Cassius Winston who runs towards the ball, secures it, and dribbles out the clock for the victory that sent Michigan State to the Final Four.

Despite having the most talented team, Duke lost due to their inexperience and the fact that Zion did not get enough touches in the final moments of the game. The better team won that night as Michigan State had a team full of experienced upperclassmen that have been through NCAA Tournament runs before. Nonetheless, Duke’s luck seemed to have run out and their season was over just like that. The Final Four teams were Virginia, Auburn, Texas Tech, and Michigan State. Michigan State ended up losing to Texas Tech in the Final Four and Virginia was able to squeak by Auburn with a one point win despite some controversy on a foul called on a three point shot. In the National Championship Game with Virginia going against Texas Tech, it turned out to be one of the best title games in years. Texas Tech was up by 3 in the final moments when Ty Jerome found an open DeAndre Hunter in the corner for an open three to send the game into overtime. Virginia was able to go on a big run to finish off Texas Tech and win their first National Championship in school history. This is astonishing they were able to win since last year they became the first number 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed after being defeated by UMBC in the first round. Duke actually beat the national champions twice during the regular season, which shows how Duke really had the potential to have won the title this year if they executed more efficiently down the stretch of their game against Michigan State. No other words to describe their season in a nutshell, but a disappointment due to the high expectations being placed upon these fabulous freshmen, they were unable to make the Final Four let alone win it all. This team was compared to the Fab 5, but that infamous Michigan made the National Championship Game, twice.

Zion Williamson definitely lived up the hype this year since he was named the National Player Of The Year. He will for certainly be the first pick in the draft and be an immediate impact player in the NBA as many teams on the pro level have tanked this season in order to have a chance at him. Tre Jones decided to stay at school for his sophomore season which was a smart decision because he still needs to work on his shooting and point guard skills, but he will follow in his brother’s footsteps to play in the NBA. There is no question that RJ Barrett is supremely talented, it’s just he needs to work on his shot selection and overall basketball IQ that was evidently exploited during the NCAA Tournament. He will most likely be the second or third pick in the draft as Ja Morant has garnered a lot of attention as a result of his play during the tournament. Cam Reddish started off the year strong, but as the season went on, he became very inconsistent with his play on the floor. He really was a non-factor for the whole tournament and rarely made an impact when in the game. Cam was overshadowed by Zion and RJ, so it would be best if he follows Tre in remaining at Duke for another season in order to refine his game. This was one of the most hyped up college basketball teams in recent memory and while they did not win the title, they were entertaining to watch and will never be forgotten.

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