Duke's Coach K on Kansas: 'It is great when you have two programs of this nature....play for a Final Four berth'
When they came to Duke, they had a few goals in mind. But one — the most important one — was to win a national championship.
The No. 1 ranked recruiting class — headlined by Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. — joined senior guard Grayson Allen, a former All-American player, to form Duke's roster, and the goal of winning a national title seemed possible.
Now, 36 games later, Duke is just one game away from making the Final Four, and three wins away from an NCAA championship.
But first, Duke must get past the Elite Eight, and No. 1 seeded Kansas (30-7) on Sunday.
When Trent was asked Saturday how much he wanted to make it to the Final Four, he said couldn't explain it.
“It’s eating me up,” he said. “I can’t wait until we play this game.”
Duke was picked No. 1 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll and many experts predicted the Blue Devils to win it all before ever watching this team play.
But Duke had talent. Bagley, the top player in the country, reclassified from the Class of 2018 to the Class of 2017, and joined Duke’s already stacked recruiting class during the summer, which included Duval, the top point guard, Trent, one of the top shooting guards , and Carter, a top-five recruit.
With so many top players, Duke losing in the tournament would make the season a bust.
The Blue Devils started the season fast, winning its first 11 games, which included a couple of double digit comebacks, and an 88-81 November win over then-No. 2 Michigan State in Chicago.
At that point, Duke’s players didn't think they could lose. But then came Duke's first conference road game.
On Dec. 9, the then-No. 1 Blue Devils lost at Boston College, 89-84.
The ACC was tougher than Duke's freshmen expected. After the game, only two players — Bagley and Allen — did postgame interviews. The rest of the players had gone to take showers.
The Blue Devils won their next two games — at home against Evansville and Florida State — but continued to struggle on the road in ACC play. Duke lost 96-85 at N.C. State on Jan. 6 after not doing well on defense, and left the game 13-2.
The player then aired out their grievances at a "players only" meeting, which seemed to help.
The Blue Devils won six of its next seven games, losing only to No. 1 Virginia at home on Jan. 27. But losses to St. John's on Feb. 3 and UNC on Feb. 8, when Bagley sustained a right knee sprain, caused Duke to re-evaluate again.
On Feb. 18 in a 66-57 win at Clemson, Duke switched primarily to a zone defense, and ended up finishing the regular season winning six of its next seven games, including a 74-64 win at home to rival North Carolina on March 3.
The Blue Devils faced UNC again in the ACC tournament semifinals on March 9, losing 74-69, and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Blue Devils easily beat its first two NCAA tournament opponents — Iona and Rhode Island — before winning a tough game against Syracuse in the Sweet 16 on Friday.
After Duke's 87-62 Round of 32 win over Rhode Island, Rams' coach Danny Hurley said: “They looked like an NBA team out there with their size and length. ... That was the best display of basketball I’ve seen played against one of my Rhode Island teams in six years."
Duke was playing the best it has played all season.
“This journey has been amazing,” Duval said. “We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs as a team, and even individually. But you know the hard work has paid off, and we’re still working on trying to accomplish a goal of ours.”
Carter said he believes the team is peaking at the right moment.
“And that’s all from the hard work we’ve been going through throughout the whole year,” Carter said.
Allen is the only Duke player to have experienced what it is like to get this far in the tournament and win a national championship. In 2015, Duke beat Wisconsin, 68-63, to win the national title. The team included veterans senior Quinn Cook, sophomore Matt Jones, junior Amile Jefferson, and junior Marshall Plumlee, and four talented freshmen — including Allen, who came off the bench to score 16 points, grab two rebounds and snag one steal in 21 minutes.
Allen, now a senior, desperately wants to win another title before he leaves Duke.
“I mean it kind of would bring everything full circle, starting off with kind of being spoiled as a freshman and not really having to do much, just being part of the team and being led to the Final Four and led to a national championship win,” Allen said. “And now coming around to my senior year where I’m the captain of the team and trying to be a leader of younger guys.”
Allen has done all he can to remind his teammates that any game could be their last together. For Duke's starting five, this tournament is most likely their last in a Duke uniform.
Since Duke started recruiting one-and-done players in 2011, it hasn't had much success in the NCAA tournament, other than the 2015 season. In 2011, Duke lost in the Sweet 16 to Arizona. In 2012, Duke, a No. 2 seed was upset by Lehigh in its first NCAA tournament game. In 2013, Duke lost in the Elite Eight. In 2014, Duke lost to Mercer in its opening game. In 2016, Duke lost in the Sweet 16. And last season, Duke lost to South Carolina in the Round of 32.
And now the Blue Devils sit, in the Elite Eight, one game away from the Final Four.
"Nothing's going to come easy for us if we want to get to the Final Four," Bagley said. "So we have lock in like we've been doing the past couple of games and just focus on our game plan and things we need to do to make sure we get a win."