The Duke Blue Devils began the second half with a six-point lead over Arizona in the Sweet 16, and everything going just as planned. Kyrie Irving dominated in the first half, and while Derrick Williams' 25 first-half points had NBA scouts drooling, Duke had a firm grip on the lead. Then it all fell apart.
But that doesn't really do it justice. Not at all. Because it was SO, SO GLORIOUS.
Here I was on Thursday thinking it'd be close and Duke would get burned choosing between Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith, but God. Nobody expected that. Nobody expected out-and-out humiliation. Duke's too good... Too experienced... Too well-coached for anything like that.
But then it happened, and it left Duke fans humbled, and even folks like Greg Anthony practically speechless on the CBS post-game show. "I've never seen a Duke team this rattled," he said with a blank stare, "That Arizona team mentally and physically abused them."
Forget the old tournament cliche "survive and advance"; Arizona obliterated the Blue Devils in the most all-encompassing, spectacular way possible. If it seemed like every other play, another 'Zona player dunked in Duke's face, that's not too far from the truth. The whole second half was like one, long, emasculating dunk in the face of Duke basketball.
For Arizona, to borrow a phrase The Great Bill Raftery used to describe a block on Thursday night, "That's not a message, that's a novel." The entire second half hammered home the message for America; Derrick Williams and Arizona are better than anyone gave them credit for, and Duke's never been as good as you think.
First, we'll start with Arizona and the Wildcats' part of that message. To understand what Derrick Williams means to Arizona's strategy, you have to understand hoops in a more philosophical context. He's not just great on his own. It's one thing to have the best player on the court in an NCAA Tournament game. BYU proved the limitations of that strategy against Florida on Thursday night.
But it's a whole different sort of advantage to have a player as physically dominating as Derrick Williams. He sets the tone for everyone else. Nobody in the country can guard him, and watching him do whatever he wants to whoever tries, it injects the whole team with confidence. Think Kyle Singler or Mason Plumlee scared Arizona after watching them get pushed around by Williams for the first 20 minutes?
So when you saw Arizona tearing away every rebound and going down the lane at will, it was a testament to the whole team's toughness and confidence, but especially to Derrick Williams.
As Coach K said afterward, "...With Williams, he gives you confidence. You always know that you have that guy on the court. Even when he's not scoring... There is a physicality to this game. It gives them that presence all the time, and if they start hittin' ... then, boom, it goes to another level, which it did in the second half."
Derrick Williams led, and everyone else exploded from there.
As for Duke, nobody was around to lead. It goes back to what I spent a solid 1,500 words writing about on Thursday: "it's not that Kyrie and Nolan Smith can't share, but that Duke's probably better if they don't." As soon as Kyrie Irving returned for Duke, their identity became a giant question mark. There were pluses and minuses to having him around.
Irving was good enough to command the ball on offense for Duke, and he looked great scoring 14 points for them in the first half. With his ability to beat people off the dribble, open shots come easily for him and everyone else, and Duke's a much scarier team.
But when Duke got pushed back on their heels, everyone looked to Nolan Smith to save them like he has all year long. But Nolan was out of rhythm after deferring to Kyrie for the first thirty minutes, and ultimately a complete non-factor. People think chemistry is all hype, like it's some intangible made up for the sake of sports radio shows, and that's usually true. But not always. Need proof that chemistry matters sometimes? Look at Nolan Smith.
The guy that averaged 21 points and 5.5 assists in Duke's five games prior to the tournament had 8 points and two assists Thursday night vs. Arizona. It's nobody's fault, and if anything, Nolan was to classy in deferring to Kyrie. But in any case, when Duke needed a go-to guy to help them respond on Thursday, neither Kyrie Irving or Nolan Smith could own the role, and Duke had no answer.
So... They collapsed.
It was like basketball porn for most of America. A train wreck at the worst time possible for the team that everyone loves to hate. Nothing unites sports fans quite like Duke basketball getting the crap kicked out of it; it wasn't just that they lost, though. They lost like that.
I won't even pretend to be unbiased in any of this; Duke's the absolute worst, and nothing brings me quite as much joy to see them collapse in such an all-encompassing fashion. Every year, we all have to pretend to indulge a team that gets way too much help from the refs, way too much credit from broadcasters, and way too much love from a bunch of smarmy, "crazy" fans.
Now, Duke's in for a reality check. Kyrie Irving will likely head to the NBA, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler graduate, leaving the Duke to rely on a bunch of freshman and Seth Curry next season. Good luck with that. Nolan Smith will likely catch on in the NBA because he's totally awesome, and people like him generally find a way to succeed. As for Singler, remember when the whole world was pretending he was a lottery pick?
Yeah, about that... Hello, second round! If Kyle Singler's draft stock was on life support before Thursday night, Derrick Williams just pulled the plug entirely. Because really, with Singler and with Duke, for once, no amount of Dick Vitale hype can erase what the whole country saw for themselves on Thursday night.
They were beaten into the ground and they didn't have an answer and it just kept getting worse and Singler kept getting dunked on and Jim Nantz was probably speechless somewhere and Coach K couldn't do anything and Duke fans couldn't say anything and... and... WASN'T IT GLORIOUS?