Before you look back at this remarkable and captivating Duke basketball season, take a deep breath, because by the end of this article you will not be able to sit still.
Duke entered the 20142015 season after suffering a shocking defeat to 14 seed Mercer in Duke’s first game of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. The upcoming season looked promising with the number one recruiting class, but after Duke’s latest dance, it was difficult to have high expectations. Shortly after the catastrophic tournament, freshman sensation Jabari Parker declared for the NBA draft, as did sidekick forward Rodney Hood. This left the program in the hands of four 18-year olds, a few sophomores and juniors, and only one senior. The primary explanation for the disastrous tournament was: “Mercer was the mature team, lead by upperclassmen.” And Duke fans couldn’t help but ask themselves, “Can a team full of freshmen win a title?”
Well, that question was answered on April 6, 2015 when the young, but fearless Duke Blue Devils defeated Wisconsin by a score of 6863 in the NCAA National Championship Game. Oh, not to mention Duke started 3 freshmen, one of which (Tyus Jones) won MOP of the Final Four. There were countless accomplishments embedded in this phenomenal season, which will go down in history as one of the greatest seasons by any freshman class ever.
The headlines of college basketball from day one were, “Kentucky is the team to beat, the team of destiny”. Kentucky, indeed, had a legendary season, but the hype should have perhaps been on the young Blue Devils. By December 3rd, Duke had started the season 70, led by freshman starters Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones. Duke was on its way to the dreaded Kohl Center, where they would be facing the highly touted senior, Frank Kaminsky. Wisconsin was ranked second in the nation prior to this game, but not after. The talented Duke team displayed unusual poise for a team stacked with freshman, playing in one of the loudest stadiums in the country. Duke shot 65 percent led by 22 points by freshman guard Tyus Jones. Only a couple weeks later, Duke defeated defending national champion Connecticut by a score of 66-56.
This fairy tale start to the season came to an abrupt halt when Duke suffered back to back losses to NC State and Miami on January 7th and 11th. The freshmen responded impressively, defeating #6 Louisville away from home. Looking back, it is remarkable to note that a loss in this game would have the Devils sitting at a 23 record in conference play. Instead the monumental win revealed the toughness that this Duke team possessed, as all eyes were turned on them. Only a week later, Duke travelled to Madison Square Garden to take on a scrappy St. John’s team poised to keep Coach K from history: 1,000 wins. On the biggest stage, with the youngest team, Coach K made history winning his 1,000th collegiate basketball game in an epic comeback, capped off by a chilling three pointer from who else, Tyus Jones.
Duke had no time to rest, traveling to top ten Notre Dame where they suffered a heartbreaker. The team reached a low point when days later former All-ACC guard Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed from the team. Duke was down to eight scholarship players and had parted ways with one of its most explosive players. Doubts were running high.
Yet again, the team responded to adversity with perhaps the biggest victory of the regular season. Playing in Charlottesville, Duke handed Virginia their first loss marking the second time this season that Duke had defeated a #2 ranked team on the road. The game was sealed by a cold-blooded three pointer from, yep you guessed it, Tyus Jones whose partner in crime, Quinn Cook, added 15 crucial points.
Duke went on to win 12 straight contests including an eye-opening blowout over #10 Notre Dame, and sweetest of all, back-to-back wins over rival North Carolina. This stretch included a couple more impressive road showings at Syracuse and Chapel Hill, in which Tyus Jones was sensational down the stretch. Although Duke suffered a relatively early departure from the ACC tournament, there was no looking back.
With the start of the Big Dance, the Devils were off and running. Duke went on to win six straight games, the last of which earned Mike Krzyzewski his fifth National Championship. Four Duke players recorded double digits in the championship game, but wait, they were all freshman. Much of the basketball nation did not even know Duke had a fourth freshmen, but this story may be the best of them all; Grayson Allen. After having very limited playing time in the regular season, Grayson Allen was the spark plug for the national champions. He scored 16 points off the bench, eight of which were consecutive when Duke faced a second half deficit of nine. Many were thinking, “Where was Allen in the first meeting between Duke and Wisconsin this season?”. Well, he was on the bench… all 40 minutes. From zero time to crunch time, the freshman was unstoppable, emerging as a March Madness legend. Perhaps the play of the tournament featured Allen crashing to the deck for a loose ball and winning possession. To put it simply, Allen lit a fire under each and every one of the Blue Devils. And once again, the play that sealed the deal, sealed the tournament, and sealed the season was by none other than Tyus Jones. Jones flashed three fingers after hitting a spine trembling three pointer in front of 72,000 fans with 1:21 left on the clock. A large part of the freshman success is due to senior captain, Quinn Cook who played a crucial role in guiding this young group of kids. Cook continued to step up time and time again as the big brother, keeping the freshmen humble. At critical times during the tournament both Matt Jones and Chief Justise Winslow hit the big shots, and Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee’s stout defense cannot be unmentioned. And of course, freshman superstar Jahlil Okafor, also known as “Big Jah”, dominated all year long at the low post, with his unending assortment of moves game in and game out.
This season, overloaded with accomplishments, was one to remember for Duke basketball fans. I guess Duke wanted to dance a little bit more this time around.