The East region is a quagmire of a quadrant.
On Sunday night, No. 7 South Carolina pulled off a memorable 88-81 upset of No. 2 Duke in Greenville, S.C., setting up a hodgepodge four-team face-off Friday night at Madison Square Garden that will involve these schools: No. 5 Florida vs. No. 8 Wisconsin, No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 7 South Carolina.
The NCAA Tournament once again reminded us that our predictions are meaningless. Our expectations are worthless. Our prognostications pointless. Villanova vs. Duke was the presumptive regional final matchup in the East.
Those teams have a cakewalk to the Elite Eight, was the general consensus.
Yeah, not so much. Now both — the two most recent national champions — are done for the season. We take what the tournament gives us and we will like it. Every year, something new. Something random. Some event that crinkles the bracket to a form nobody forecasts. South Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida and Baylor comprise the crinkle.
With Duke’s loss, the ACC, which sent a league-record nine teams to the NCAA Tournament, has just one team remaining (North Carolina). It’s entirely baffling. For the first time since 2009, college basketball’s preseason No. 1 team in the AP poll failed to make the Sweet 16.
Duke, despite being a 2, was the odds-on favorite to win the title. See ya.
Because the Sweet 16 is void of mid-major programs and/or Cinderella stories, Duke’s loss to the Gamecocks will almost certainly wind up ranking as the biggest upset in this year’s tournament. And yet, it’s not even among the most shocking upsets for Duke in recent history. Duke has made a habit of taking big falls in the first weekend over the past decade, from losing to VCU in 2007 to getting dropped by No. 15 Lehigh and No. 14 Mercer in the first round in recent years. Duke’s won titles in that stretch but been taken out way too soon, too.
In a way, Duke has become the symbol, a microcosm, of what the tournament is: a complete crapshoot. You need the right matchups, good health, consistent coaching and plenty of luck. Sometimes Duke has had it, sometimes it hasn’t. But this team, as Mike Krzyzewski has said many times this season, is different in a lot of ways from any team he’s ever had. He’s never gone through a season like this.
And barely a week removed from Duke making ACC tournament history by becoming the first team to win that league’s championship with four wins in four days — in persuasive fashion — the fact that you’re seeing Duke obituaries on the internet by March 20 is a stunner. This was the first time a Duke team coached by Krzyzewski failed to get out of the first weekend after winning the ACC tournament. The previous 13 times the Blue Devils won an ACC banner, a Sweet 16 was guaranteed to follow, minimally.
You coach long enough, you experience almost everything.
This Duke team will be remembered for its mercurial nature. It speaks heavily to this team’s past five months that it could be the most polarizing Blue Devils team in team history. Its unpredictability, ironically, was its most consistent personality trait., giving the program its best tournament run in its history, it’s oddly fitting. We never could trust Duke, despite the potential. South Carolina is known for its defense, but obviously needed offense to push through. It didn’t push, it blasted. The Gamecocks scored a scorching 1.45 points per possession in the final 20 minutes, adding up to 65 second-half points, which is more than they scored in 10 full games this year.
Appropriately, Duke wasn’t at full strength for this game, not that it would’ve much mattered. Freshman Marques Bolden was out because of the flu. But so it went for this team in so many games. For a majority of Duke’s campaign, the team did not have a full roster available. Coach K missed seven games due to back surgery. It was a lot of stop-and-go. A lot of Grayson Allen distraction. A lot of “Duke is back” followed by “Duke is not back.”
Well, Duke is done. And a lot of people get a lot of joy out of that, even if they picked Duke to win the title. America’s three favorite holidays are Christmas, Thanksgiving and the day Duke gets kicked out of the NCAA Tournament.
This team is going to look a lot different next year. Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones graduate. Jayson Tatum is obviously gone to the NBA, and Harry Giles almost certainly has to follow his best friend on the one-and-done train out of Durham. Luke Kennard’s stock might not ever be higher, so he’d be advised to go, and Grayson Allen can’t possibly want to endure another season of living under the microscope like this, so it’s probably best for his overall well-being that he take a chance on getting drafted and leave Duke behind. Plus, don’t be surprised if a couple guys who couldn’t see significant minutes this season look to play elsewhere.
What was thought to be one of the best rosters in college basketball in the past half-decade only briefly, in flashes, showed why that conjecture was accurate. Duke goes down as a tease, a disappointment, a team that could only occasionally put it all together but seemed destined to finish in the most predictably unpredictable way possible: losing a de facto road game against a team almost nobody predicted would beat them.
It’s highly possible a lot of players on this team wind up going on to achieve a lot of great things individually and on the team level in pro ball. We’ll look back, five, seven, 10 years from now, and probably wonder how a team filled with so many really good college players wound up with a 28-9 record and lost to a program that hadn’t ever before won back-to-back NCAA Tournament games.