From the beginning of the season, Duke had its share of setbacks.
But after making history by winning four games in four days to capture the ACC tournament championship, seventh-ranked Duke (27-8), the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament East Region, has swiftly reemerged as the team that garnered the top preseason ranking out of the conference.
Duke will open the tournament with No. 15 Troy (22-14) on Friday at 7:20 p.m. in Greenville, S.C.
The Blue Devils started the season without freshmen Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles.
Tatum, a 6-8 forward, sprained a foot, and Bolden, a 6-11 center, had a lower-leg injury, in the preseason. Giles, at 6-10 forward who was once considered one of this summer’s top NBA Draft prospects, suffered his own knee setback and had to have a left knee arthroscopy, delaying his college debut until Dec. 19, a four-minute outing against Tennessee State. He tore his ACL his senior year of high school.
Injuries continued to plague Duke, touching its 6-5 star junior guard Grayson Allen (foot/ankle), its fifth-year 6-8 forward and team captain Amile Jefferson (bruised bone in foot), and its Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, who missed seven games after having back surgery on Jan. 6.
Allen dealt with foot and ankle problems all season, but when he tripped Elon’s Steven Santa Ana in December, the adversity went beyond physical pain.
He was suspended, missing the ACC opener on Dec. 31, when Duke fell 89-75 to Virginia Tech en route to one of its worse conference starts in a decade. The fans at every arena Allen visited following his third tripping incident in a calendar year verbally slammed him. The boos, the harsh chants, the signs were always directed at the now former captain – his title was stripped as a result of his actions.
The Blue Devils fell to No. 21 in early February, their lowest ranking of the year.
Again they were written off after back-to-back losses to Florida State and Louisville on the road.
Duke scrapped and battled to finish 11-7 in the conference, taking the No. 5 seed going into the conference tournament, where everything changed.
Duke overcame deficits against Louisville and UNC, the regular-season ACC champion, before defeating Bonzie Colson and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for the league title.
The freshmen shined, the veterans were key and Duke was, in a snap, back on track.
“It was the pain we felt, that really drove us to become better, not only as players, but as people on and off the court,” Matt Jones said Thursday at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, the site of Duke’s first round game. “And I mean pain forces you to grow, with Coach being out, with guys being injured. And every day being so unconventional, we had to learn how to adjust.”
The Blue Devils have more work to do.
They share a bracket with No. 1 seed and defending national champion Villanova, and if the top seeds advance to next week, Duke could meet the Wildcats.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 15 Troy
NCAA tournament Round of 64
When: 7:20 p.m. Friday
Where: Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C.