Duke’s players and coaches gladly wear the target the rest of the college basketball world places on them each season.
“It’s a program based on winning,” said Luke Kennard, Duke’s sophomore guard who was a first-team all-ACC pick this season. “To be part of it is truly a blessing. Expectations are always high for a top-notch program. For me personally, I like it. I like having expectations, goals because it motivates you to get better and to reach them.”
For the current group, which enters the ACC tournament as the No. 5 seed, it started last summer before any official polls were conducted.
With three players in its rotation who were part of the 2015 NCAA championship team and an incoming freshman class filled with projected NBA draft picks, Duke was the favorite to win another national championship.
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The season hasn’t turned out quite that way, what with Duke having twice suffered three losses in a four-game stretch of ACC play. Those low points bookended a seven-game winning streak, showing the up-and-down nature of a talented team knocked off its main path by injury and interruptions.
Despite a 23-8 record that’s far worse than expected from the nation’s preseason No. 1 team Duke’s main goal of an NCAA championship remains attainable no matter what happens in this week’s ACC tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Blue Devils on Wednesday face the winner of Tuesday’s Clemson-N.C. State game.
“I would hope that we are at our best in a week and a half,” Krzyzewski said, looking ahead to the start of the NCAA tournament. “That’s what we are trying to figure out here.”
Figuring it out has been a chore this season.
Three of Duke’s freshmen -- Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden -- weren’t able to play until December due to preseason injuries. Giles and Bolden, both 6-10 centers, have been role players at best.
Redshirt senior forward Amile Jefferson missed two games with a bruised bone in his right foot. He hasn’t missed a game since January, but won’t be 100 percent the rest of the season.
Junior guard Grayson Allen, the ACC’s preseason player of the year, missed one ACC road game in December while suspended for, again, tripping an opposing player. He missed another due to a left ankle in February. Duke lost both games.
In the middle of the ACC schedule, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski missed seven games after having back surgery.
“Our whole year has been that type of thing,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve never really had everybody healthy. So the kids have done great. Our guys have done a great job. To have the league schedule that we’ve had, especially the away schedule, to have these injuries, me being out, all that stuff They’ve been terrific. I don’t think a lot of teams would be in our position right now with all that’s happened.”
Somehow, Duke has accomplished enough to still be among the nation’s top teams. The Blue Devils own 10 wins over teams rated in the top 50 of the RPI. Duke is No 14 in the RPI and No. 15, according to kenpom.com.
Are those national championship type ratings? No. But they show a team that continued to battle and improve. It’s a team that contains enough talent to have a successful March -- and perhaps April -- while also having the uncertainty that could result in an early exit.
Despite all that, despite the team meetings and harsh internal criticism, the Blue Devils believe they are closer than ever.
“The thing that has developed is a bond between our guys because we had to go through the hard times,” Jefferson said. “We had to go through it together. We had to lose on the road and go through it together. We had that feeling. We had meetings and put everything out on the table. Go through tough practices. Those things don’t happen for nothing. They build something in your guys. They build maturity. They build character. We definitely have been able to find something. I see it as a collective bond.”
Jefferson and Jones are Duke’s two captains. Allen made it a triumvirate before his tripping incident caused his captaincy to end.
Through this season’s trials, its two oldest players have been rocks for the others to lean on.
“Amile was a leader from the time I stepped on campus and Matt has just been huge with his dedication,” Allen said. “Both of them are just the ultimate team guys. They just buy in completely to what Coach (Krzyzewski) is saying, to what we’re doing and what’s best for the team. I think that’s huge. It just sets a great example for our whole team. Their dedication to the program is huge.”
Their leadership has made the difference more often than not for Duke in an ACC season that’s been played on a razor’s edge.
Duke lost road games at Virginia Tech, Florida State and Louisville early in the season. They dropped an ugly home game to N.C. State. The next night, the Duke Basketball Radio Show featuring an assistant coach was canceled as Krzyzewski, still recovering from back surgery, called the team to his house for one of those “put everything on the table” meetings Jefferson mentioned.
Duke ripped off seven wins in a row, a streak that started when Kennard made all of his second half shots, including the game-winning 3-pointer, in an 85-83 comeback win at Wake Forest.
The winning streak ended with a 78-75 loss at Syracuse followed by a 55-50 loss at Miami. Duke beat Florida State 75-70 at home but lost the regular-season finale 90-83 at North Carolina.
Those late losses, though, haven’t dimmed Duke’s enthusiasm for the postseason.
“We didn’t play bad,” Krzyzewski said. “We didn’t play great. We played winning but then at the end, we weren’t able to hit a shot or make a stop. The guys haven’t been playing bad. They’ve been playing well and two of the guys have been hurt. I think they have been doing a terrific job. That’s what I told them -- keep doing what you are doing. We are right there. All of these games are close. All of these teams are so darn good. Just keep trying to win those last few possessions.”
The postseason is here. All of the possessions matter a little more. With so much behind them, the Blue Devils hope there’s also a long road ahead to the Final Four.
Duke vs. N.C. State or Clemson
When: 2 p.m., Wednesday
TV: ESPN, WRAL