Entering mid-February of a rollercoaster season, the Duke Blue Devils are finally starting to embody the full potential of the preseason No. 1 team that was the favorite to win this year’s national title. Duke seemed to have all of the components to piece together a national championship team early on- a great pool of freshmen talent, 4 returning veterans including lead scorer Luke Kennard as well as three 2015 national championship players, and a world-class coach returning after winning his third Olympic gold medal in Brazil. However, injuries, suspension, and lacking in team cohesiveness has caused an unpredictable season for Duke.
The Blue Devils began their season without freshmen Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden, and top recruit Harry Giles, all of whom suffered early injuries. Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski were adamant about waiting until players were back to 100 percent before returning to the court. Even without these key players, Duke managed to start their season 9-1. Duke played their first full roster game with the return of a healthy Harry Giles, who made his college debut, December 19th with a 65-55 win over Tennessee State.
Duke’s full roster team did not last long. Following their win over Tennessee State, preseason favorite Player of the Year junior Grayson Allen came under scrutiny for tripping Elon’s Steven Santa Ana. This was Allen’s third offense in one calendar year, with blatant tripping offenses last season against both Louisville and Florida State. This incident took the media by storm, mostly incited by the angered tantrum Allen threw on the bench following the incident. The preseason player of the year favorite was subjected to countless harsh tweets, articles, and internet memes. Mike Kryzyzewski imposed an indefinite suspension on Allen as well as stripping him of his captaincy as punishment.
That indefinite suspension, however, resulted in a mere one game suspension for the junior, which led to even more backlash in the media on Allen, Duke, and Krzyzewski. Allen struggled in his early games back and faced extreme hate from opposing teams and fans, including getting booed any time he touched the ball. It seems though that Allen has finally accepted the situation he has placed himself in as college basketball villain and begun to play to his full potential. Allen is a leader on the court and has come up big in recent wins, serving as a key playmaker to his team. Duke needs the consistency Allen has been providing in recent games to remain a top contender in a fierce ACC conference.
America should be proud of Grayson Allen. The young made made a mistake, the young man fought through it, and now the young man is thriving.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 10, 2017
Freshman injuries and Allen’s suspension were not the only setbacks Duke has faced this year. It was announced in early January that head coach Mike Krzyzewski would undergo back surgery, leading the five-time national championship coach to miss 4 weeks for recovery. Assistant coach Jeff Capel served as interim head coach for 7 games, which the Blue Devils finished 4-3 with Kryzewski’s absence. The injuries did not stop with the freshmen or coach-during Kryzyzewski’s absence, Duke also played without their co-captain Amile Jefferson for 2 games, who was out with a bone bruise to his right foot, the same foot that caused him to miss 27 games last season.
But now things are finally starting to look up for Duke- they’re playing with an almost full roster (sophomore Chase Jeter currently out due to herniated disk), Coach K has returned from his absence following back surgery, Grayson Allen has taken reigns as a team leader, and the Blue Devils are on a 5-0 winning streak coming off a win against Clemson. CBS has released 2017 NCAA bracketology predictions with Duke a current 4 seed. With this team the healthiest they have been all season and the return of their coach, the question is if the Blue Devils have enough time to prepare for March to be a national title contender.
This is a team with nine McDonald’s All-Americans and all of the right talent to win a national championship. After numerous setbacks, things are starting to look up for the Blue Devils. But with March quickly approaching, will Mike Krzyzewski be able to mold the cohesiveness this team has lacked all season when it counts?