In the four months since Duke beat Louisville in the Bahamas, the Cardinals got better. The Blue Devils never got back to that level.
It wasn’t entirely surprising that top-seeded Louisville ended second-seeded Duke’s season in the Midwest Region final on Sunday. Even after Ryan Kelly returned to action, the Blue Devils weren’t the same team they were before Kelly hurt his foot.
“They were definitely better today,” Duke guard Seth Curry said after the 85-63 loss. “Obviously we can beat them, but we weren’t good enough today.”
The Blue Devils were good enough at one point. That opening season-opening 15-0 run raised hopes that this might be a Duke team to rival some of the most powerful in Mike Krzyzewski’s reign, perhaps not in terms of raw talent but certainly in terms of dominance in a season – an era, really – devoid of truly exceptional college teams.
The Blue Devils were cruising, with Mason Plumlee playing like the player-of-the-year candidate Krzyzewski promised he would be, and all the gears clicking.
And then Kelly got hurt, and the dynamic changed, just as it did when Kyrie Irving got hurt two years ago, just as it did last year when Austin Rivers arrived for his one and only season with the Blue Devils. If anything, these past three seasons have shared a lack of continuity, whereas Duke’s 2010 national champions served as a monument to stability.
Still, none of them raised hopes quite like this one did. In any other region, against any other opponent, the Blue Devils might still be playing.
“I didn’t like our season last year, not just the way it ended,” Krzyzewski said. “I just didn’t like it, even though we were 27-7. I loved this season. I love my three seniors.
“Every day, at the end of a year you do this, there can be a little bit of you that wants it to be over and you fight it. And in some years, every once in a while, not too often, you just want the damn thing to be over. There’s not one part of me that wants this season to be over.”
The what-might-have-been will linger with this team for a long time, which is becoming a bit of an occupational hazard in the Triangle. Irving’s injury derailed Duke in 2011; North Carolina was thwarted by the injuries to Kendall Marshall, Dexter Strickland and John Henson a year ago; even N.C. State falls into that category this season, with all the assembled talent failing to win a single NCAA tournament game, let alone an ACC title.
Kelly came back with that 36-point explosion against Miami, and it looked like the Blue Devils had their mojo back. But his production steadily declined since, and it’s easy to surmise that missing almost two months, especially with a foot injury, would have an inevitable deleterious impact on his conditioning.
Essentially, aside from that Miami game, the Blue Devils were playing without a full-strength Kelly. He went 1-for-19 from 3-point range in the postseason. He wasn’t the same player, which meant Duke wasn’t the same team.
“We had glimpses – the Miami game, the Carolina game – but I don’t think we ever got back to where we were,” Duke guard Quinn Cook said. “We played hard. That’s the thing. Our chemistry faded a little bit, but I thought we fought every game this year.”
The Duke team that ended the season wasn’t quite as good as the one that started the season, the one that beat Louisville in November but not when it really mattered.