There was no debate in the preseason as to who the No. 1 team in the country would be when the polls officially opened in November. There was Duke, and then there was everyone else.
Duke was the team that had the most impressive collection of returning players in college basketball, led by star shooting guard Grayson Allen and front court rock Amile Jefferson. Duke also had the top-ranked recruiting class in the country, the one with five-star recruits like Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson, and Marques Bolden.
Duke looked like a superteam. Instead, it will ultimately be remembered as Mike Krzyzewski’s greatest bust ever.
South Carolina ended Duke’s season in shocking fashion on Sunday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The 88-81 loss was baffling on a number of levels. South Carolina only finished fourth in the SEC during the regular season, the basketball conference you and everyone you know likes to mock.
But most of all, this was not supposed to be a year Duke was vulnerable. This group was more talented than the 2014 team that lost to Mercer in the round of 64, and it was better than the 2012 team that was done in by C.J. McCollum and Lehigh in their first NCAA tournament game.
Duke was supposed to win the national championship and ultimately anything less than that would be considered a disappointment. To not even make it out of the first weekend makes this particular Duke squad an all-time disappointment.
It looked like Duke had turned a corner just one week ago. That was when the Blue Devils won four games in four days to capture the ACC tournament title, the first team ever to do that. Tatum was fully delivering on his recruiting hype. He looked like one of the best wing scorers in America. Luke Kennard was even better -- he was fully entrenched as one of the country’s best offensive players.
Even Grayson Allen, at the end of a roller coaster season, looked like he was embracing his new role as a point guard and playing some of his best ball of the year.
Now the season is over, and it comes to a South Carolina team that had not won an NCAA tournament game in 44 years before this season. The parallels between the losses to Mercer and Lehigh are unavoidable, but this is actually worse given how high Duke’s preseason expectations were.
Coach K isn’t going to get over this one anytime soon. He’ll have a new group of one-and-done talent next year, led by Georgia-bred big man Wendell Carter. He won’t have Tatum, likely won’t have Kennard, and could very well be missing Allen and Giles, too.
This was Duke’s golden opportunity for a sixth national championship. Instead, the Blue Devils are out in the second round against a team that hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2004.