Too good to be true. These five words probably best summarize the 2018-19 Duke college basketball season. Coming into this year’s campaign, Duke basketball had recruited a freshman class full of talent; the depth of which has not been seen since the Fab Five out of Michigan in 1991. Duke, per usual, recruited kids who had already become household names, though will go on to become bigger stars come their eventual departure unto the NBA.
R.J. Barrett. Zion Williamson. Cam Reddish. The number one, two, and three ranked recruits in the nation (per ESPN rankings), all decided to bring their talents together in Durham, North Carolina. In this one-and-done era that we live in, it seemed clear that the goal of coming to join Coach Krzyzewski was for one of the most dominant one-year runs in college basketball—and then going straight to the league. This is how it has been, and how it will continue to be so long, as the prospects are required at least a year of college play. So, with the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook making Duke the 4–1 favorites to win the College Basketball Championship come the start of the season, it seemed impossible that anything could get in this team’s way. It seemed written.
The thing often forgotten about college athletes is that they are still just kids. Duke basketball, and the renowned Coach K, just so happened to have some very, very big and athletic kids come to play for them. Zion Williamson, who clocks in at an astounding 6 foot 7 inches, 284 pounds, is the perfect example. Touted by most as the greatest prospect basketball has seen since LeBron James entered the NBA out of high school back in 2003, the physical resemblance of the two, especially in manner of play, is obvious—though Zion looks almost more like a linebacker out there on the court than a small forward.
Very quickly into the season it became apparent that the dynamic of Duke basketball was that of something like, “give Zion the ball, and get out of the way.” “The Zion show,” as it came to be referred to as for most of the season, was the most entertaining aspect of college basketball—across the entire nation. Channels broadcasting Duke games had “Zion Cams,” where one camera would focus solely on the freshman phenom for the entirety of the game—sometimes even while he sat on the bench. While co-star teammates Barrett and Reddish held their own in contributing to the continued success of the team, it seemed understood by the basketball world over that Zion was the gear that made this team work. He was actually injured this season, during a game against North Carolina, in which he literally tore through his own shoe trying to plant his foot. While Duke ultimately lost that game with Zion coming out, it was the fear struck into the hearts of all Duke fans that their beloved savior in this kid would be leaving them to fend for themselves. Missing a few games, the angst was real, and only added more to the myth surrounding Zion Williamson. But he returned, and just in time for the madness.
A 29–5 record. A number one seed. The last time Duke was a number one seed, in 2015, they went on to win the tournament. The stars could not seem to be more aligned. It was March, and the team was healthy. The college basketball tournament is the culmination of everything the players and coaches put into the season. The goal is to be the last team standing; trophy in hand, the ultimate proof that you were the best team in college basketball—something that, in this one-and-done era, seems ever much more tantalizing.
As a number one seed, Duke had an easy first round. While they knocked out 16-seeded North Dakota State with ease, the reality of the fact that there were 62 other potential opponents, all the more driven and hungrier than them to be faced, came quickly. Duke went on to beat both UCF in a one-point nail biter and Virginia Tech in the Sweet Sixteen, but their matchup against Michigan State in the Elite Eight ultimately proved to be too much of a challenge for the Blue Devils. Losing by one point in heartbreaking, and more importantly, bracket-breaking fashion, the world watched as what was meant to be the super-team of the year, ducked their heads in defeat. Truly a stunning loss it was, and a testament to the madness of March. Though unclear of who will go on to win at the Final Four, there is certainly a sense of tranquility that comes knowing that it will not be Duke this year. There is beauty in the madness, in knowing it was all too good to be true.