The Final Four will go on without Zion Williamson, and the real shame of it is he never got the chance to propel his team there. RJ Barrett got the last shot for Duke instead of Williamson, and his missed free throw put an end to Duke’s season before any of the Blue Devils ever imagined.
You knew it would come down to the end, to one last shot for somebody, because that’s the way it has been for Duke in this tournament. Never easy. Never routine. This time the bounce went against the Blue Devils. It bounced in.
Barrett tried to miss the second free throw, down two, and it took a high bounce off the back of the rim and dropped in. With too many fouls left to give, the Blue Devils had no way to get the ball back.
As Michigan State’s Cassius Winston ran away with the ball and a 68-67 win, Tre Jones sobbed at midcourt, consoled by Mike Buckmire and Justin Robinson. He never made the handshake line. Winston eventually came over to hug him.
It was an accurate depiction of the scale of this loss, of the gap between expectations -- and ability -- and achievement Duke now must absorb. The greatest college player of his generation, a complete phenomenon, wasn’t enough to get the Blue Devils over the top.
“For us, we not only set high expectations, but you all set high expectations, which is fine,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Like, if we don’t win the whole thing, to me it’s disappointing. It’s not a disappointment. There’s a big difference.”
In the locker room afterward, Buckmire at his side one last time, Williamson went over the final play, noting the primary option for him had been taken away. At that point, Williamson said, Barrett had to improvise.
“There were other options,” Williamson said, his voice trailing off.
Then he hung his head, a rare moment of visible despair on a night when he remained otherwise composed.
“That’s just life, man,” Williamson said.
As big and strong as Williamson is, this was an opponent with big enough and strong enough players to be neither intimidated nor outmuscled. The Michigan State trio of Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins and Nick Ward was able to keep Williamson from getting too comfortable and Williamson’s first-half foul trouble provided the spark that got the Spartans back into a game that was slipping away from them.
Still, even by that standard, Williamson was barely contained with 24 points and 14 rebounds. He had 13 of Duke’s first 22 points in the second half, in which the game swung back and forth in great gusts of momentum and emotion, Duke first, then Michigan State – which, after 30 minutes of Williamson, started hearing a lot of footsteps under the rim.
After Kenny Goins hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 34 seconds to go, Duke had two chances to tie or take the lead. Barrett missed a 3-pointer and after the rebound went out of bounds, Barrett’s drive led to the climactic free throws, a miss and an unwanted make.
“It’s a tough realization,” Barrett said. “that everything you’ve worked for all season just went out the window.”
In a curiosity as strange as Tom Izzo’s record against Krzyzewski -- now 2-11 -- Michigan State is headed to the Final Four along with three teams Duke beat by an average of 7.3 points in the regular season – Auburn, Texas Tech and Virginia (twice). This game, the last of the regional round, may have been the de facto national championship.
The failure to cross this Rubicon only fuels, unquestionably, the ongoing concerns about Duke’s continuing ability to win in the NCAA tournament with teams built around freshmen stars, especially as 2015 starts to look more and more like an exception with each passing year. Michigan State’s roster was loaded with three- and four-year players, schooled in the ways of Izzo, tougher and more resilient than Duke’s more talented players, moving on to Minneapolis even without its best scorer.
If the Blue Devils can’t get it done with the superlative talent of Williamson, whose like we will not see again soon, and the presumptive second pick in the NBA draft as well in Barrett, will Duke ever be more than the sum of its parts in this one-year life cycle of starting over every season, essentially from scratch? Since Krzyzewski made his first Final Four in 1986, this is now tied for Duke’s second-longest drought since then – along with the four years preceding 2015, the beginning of Duke’s one-and-done era. (And 1994-99, a different era of transition at Duke.)
“Every year, especially at a program like Duke, you have to enjoy being together as a group,” Williamson said. “Because it changes every year.”
This will not be the end. Krzyzewski will plunge ahead regardless, having cast his lot with this strategy, too late in his career to switch back now. A new class of superstars will enter next year for a five-month race against the basketball clock, and Krzyzewski will try to compress years of teaching into weeks, hoping that the next group will be able to find its way in March and tack an actual No. 1 onto its No. 1 ranking as a recruiting class.
This one could not, despite its talent, unable to overcome the typical hurdles of the postseason – injuries, fatigue and inexperience.
And college basketball – “a cesspool,” as Dick Vitale has taken to calling it, even before Bruce Pearl took Auburn to the Final Four – will undertake its championship without its most marketable star, who never got one last shot.