The Lesson Of Duke Basketball 2019: Youth May Not Be Served, But It Was Fun While It Lasted

By

Leonard Zwelling

The 2018-2019 Duke Men’s Basketball season started with great hope. Coach K had recruited the best freshman team in school history and perhaps in the history of the NCAA. The team was led by Zion Williamson, a man-boy with a 6 foot seven, 285-pound frame and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He was Superman and played like it both before and after he recovered from an exploding Nike shoe in front of President Obama. It was that kind of year.

After having had a short run of mediocrity while Zion’s knee healed, the Blue Devils swept through the ACC Tournament and were seeded first overall in the NCAA March Madness scramble. Then they beat two teams in a row by a combined three points and looked very vulnerable. Michigan State finally did them in—by one point. Duke had lived on the knife-edge for a week and eventually died on it. What’s the takeaway?

For some of us in Dukedom, it is another indicator of why we hate the one-and-done phenomenon that is plaguing college basketball. Swarms of freshmen with little interest in ever getting a degree are recruited to play and play they do. Then they leave. It’s hard to get too heavily invested in 18-year olds who will not share the degree that you earned as did the Duke championship teams of 1991, 1992, 2001 and 2010. Those were teams we learned to love over time. These latest incarnations are blips on our emotional radar screens and then, they are gone.

Second, basketball is a game of decision- making. The best decision makers, especially at the guard position, often are on the winning side. While Duke had a skilled guard and great leader in Trey Jones, he suffered from what the freshman point guard Bobby Hurley suffered from in 1990 when Duke was creamed by UNLV a year before its first championship. That missing ingredient is experience, in the NCAA Tournament and on the floor with teammates. It takes time to get good enough to win it all. This season’s Duke team did not have that time, nor will it ever, as most of the stellar freshmen will move on to the NBA next year.

Finally, in the modern game, a winning team must do many things well. Two of those things are shoot well from beyond the three-point arc and make foul shots. This year’s Duke team lacked in both departments.

The real lesson of this year’s Duke team is one of time. It takes time to make a great team of people who are trying to perform at the highest of levels in any endeavor whether that be sports, theater or science. It is also true that too much time together can cause a team to lose its edge. There is a certain Goldilocks, “just right” quality that coaches are going for when they mold a group of young men into a basketball team. If this year’s Duke team came back next year intact, they would undoubtedly sweep through the regular season and the tournaments undefeated or close at least. This team did about as well as could be expected.

The real lesson of this year is not for Duke Nation, but for the NCAA. Eliminate the rule that prevents the best of the high schoolers from making a living doing what they do best and leave college athletics to real student athletes who will spend four years getting a degree. You know. The way it used to be. It was better that way. Leave the NBA to those who belong there and the colleges to those who belong there and let’s not mix them up. It was fun to watch Zion and I saw him twice in person, but he was playing a game with which few of the other people on the court were familiar. The rest of the Duke freshman would be better off playing at least another year, but who could blame them for not turning down all that money? Not I. If they thought they were ready for the NBA last year, they ought to have gone. If not, they should consider sticking around campus for a few years to learn the game from Coach K and from their teammates. And learn a little about the world beyond basketball as well.

The real lesson of Duke Basketball 2019 is that this team was not ready to win it all. Four other teams were. I will miss this team, but I do not fret over this loss. It’s much different than the ones in 1978, 1986 and 1990. Those hurt. This stings.

Nonetheless, we will not likely see a class like this again and Zion may be a once in a generation phenomenon.

Better luck next year.

Leonard Zwelling