There was a time this year when Mike Krzyzewski legitimately wasn’t sure his Duke team was going to make the NCAA tournament.
Two months later, Duke had advanced to the Sweet 16. But that would be the end of the line, as the No. 4-seeded Blue Devils lost to No. 1 seed Oregon, 82-68.
There’s no shame in a team hitting its ceiling, and there should be no doubt that these Blue Devils did that.
"I’m proud of my team," Krzyzewski said. "A terrific year, and proud of them. Wish we could have played better, but Oregon didn’t let us play better."
Or, as Krzyzewski put it to Nike founder (and Oregon alum and booster) Phil Knight outside of the Duke locker room: "We just weren’t ourselves tonight."
Outside of Brandon Ingram, who led all scorers with 24 points, and Luke Kennard, who recorded the first double-double of his career with 13 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, the Blue Devils struggled. Derryck Thornton had more turnovers (three) than points (two). Grayson Allen struggled to finish around the rim, a testament to Oregon’s length, athleticism and shot-blocking ability. Marshall Plumlee—who Krzyzewski said improved more in one year’s time than any player he has had in his 36 years at Duke—was limited to six points and five rebounds. And Matt Jones continued to be slowed by an ankle injury, registering six points and four fouls.
And those are the six that carried Duke had to work with this year.
"They were just the better team tonight," Jones said of Oregon. "That’s the gift and the curse of the NCAA tournament. You only get one game to give it all you got, and they were the better team tonight."
A disastrous end to the first half was foreshadowed what was to come in the second.
Thornton had the ball with eight seconds left had tried to force a pass to a covered Ingram, and that was picked off by Boucher. To make matters, worse, Kennard fouled him, and Boucher made one free throw to extend Oregon’s lead to 36-31. Duke went from having a chance to cut the lead to two to trailing by five.
"Obviously we made a lot of bonehead mistakes that we usually don't make," Jones said.
Casey Benson came out and hit back-to-back 3s to open the second half for Oregon, and Chris Boucher finished off a dunk in transition to make it a 44-34 Ducks lead just 80 seconds into the second half.
Duke hadn’t just rolled over all year, and Thursday night was no exception.
The Blue Devils made three of its next four shots to cut it back to a six-point deficit, 46-40, at the under-16 media timeout. A smiling Krzyzewski reminded his team it was just a six-point lead in the huddle.
But Duke could never cut it any closer.
Oregon’s athleticism was on full display for a game-changing, three-possession stretch of the second half that lasted 22 seconds. With Oregon up 48-41, Jordan Bell ran free down the lane and finished with a tomahawk slam. On the other end, Bell blocked Matt Jones’s lay-up attempt, and Casey Benson found a streaking Elgin Cook on the other end, and he finished with a one-handed slam. Krzyzewski immediately called a timeout with Duke back down double digits at 52-41 with 14:20 to go.
A Cook and-one three-point play put Oregon up by 14, 57-43 with 12:13 remaining had the Duke bench quiet.
"I don't think you can simulate that team," Ingram said. "In the beginning of the year, you can see the comparison of athleticism with Kentucky, but we haven't played anyone like them."
Two Allen free throws did cut the deficit back to single digits, 63-54, with 7:10 left. But the Ducks’ athleticism was too much, as Boucher again rattled home a momentum-killing dunk. That was followed on Oregon’s next possession by a Tyler Dorsey 3, giving the Ducks a 14-point lead once again with 6:06 remaining in the game.
"They were the better team. That was pretty obvious tonight," Krzyzewski said.
But it was also obvious to Krzyzewski—any anyone who has been paying attention—that the Blue Devils should be proud of what they accomplished this year. After winning the 2015 national title and stocking up on top-line prep talent for next season, this year was always going to be a bridge year of sorts. And after Amile Jefferson broke his foot in December, it could have been the type of down year not seen in 20 years. Instead, the the Blue Devils that could were one of the final 16 teams standing.
"We can hang our hat on how the season went," Jones said. "We fought the whole year."