Grayson Allen had a chance to claim his Laettner moment.
With a trip to the Final Four on the line and the score locked at 72 on the last possession of regulation, Allen dribbled up the floor. His Duke teammates—up until now, the Blue Devils’ main source of scoring in the contest—cleared out and allowed him room to work. He reached the top of the key, spinning each and every way, looking for a basket to win the game. Finally, he released. At first, it looked good, but his floater fell off the rim after kissing seemingly every inch of the cylinder. And instead of a basket that’d surely cement him as a tournament legend, the senior captain faltered down the stretch, and Duke fell to Kansas 85-81 in overtime.
It wasn’t until the game’s waning seconds, with the Jayhawks clinging to a five-point lead, that it felt like either team was truly in control. The contest featured 17 lead changes and 11 instances of an even scoreboard before the game’s leading scorer Malik Newman sunk a corner 3 with just under two minutes remaining in the extra period to give Kansas an 81-78 lead. Newman tallied all 13 of the Jayhawks’ points in overtime, and finished with a career-high 32.
When Newman committed to Mississippi State in 2015, it was assumed he would carry the middling SEC program to new heights en route to an NBA lottery selection. But his erratic freshman year forced him down draft boards, and so he sought out a new path by transferring to Lawrence. To his credit, it worked. After an inconsistent regular-season campaign in which he put up just 12 points per contest on 43.8 percent shooting, Newman exploded in the Big 12 tournament and carried that momentum into the Big Dance. Since the postseason began, he’s averaged 22.7 points on 54.2 percent shooting from the field and 54.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Bill Self’s game plan was evident from the start. Unlike past Duke teams, this iteration of the Blue Devils occasionally struggled beyond the arc, but had the potential to dominate inside thanks to future NBA lottery big men Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III. And so, rather than allowing Duke to ride the duo to success, the Kansas coach ordered a double team on Bagley from the opening tip, forcing the Devils to turn to their freshman shooters to space the floor.
The strategy paid off. Bagley, who scored 22 points in each of his first three tournament games, shot 2-of-5 in the first half and finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds, but turned the ball over with just seconds left to secure a Kansas victory. As a team, the Devils shot just 24.1 percent from 3 for the game with no individual player sinking more than two. The Jayhawks, on the other hand, used the deep ball to the same success they have all season, with more than half of their shots coming from beyond the arc. In the end, they finished 36.1 percent from 3—a hair below their average on the year, but in line with what they needed to convert against a Duke zone defense that challenges opponents to bury jumpers from range. Udoka Azubuike, Kansas’s lone true big man, was key to negating Duke’s size inside, and it wasn’t until he sat with foul trouble that the Devils found themselves back in the lead.
Last week, I wrote about Kansas’s historically atypical reliance on the deep ball and how their range shooting came thanks to a sacrifice of interior presence. On Sunday, their cabal of wings outplayed the best frontcourt in college basketball. Jayhawk guards Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Newman made Bagley and Carter look small, out-rebounding the twin towers 17 to 12.
The Blue Devils entered the game as the best offensive rebounding team in the country, pulling down 39.2 percent of their missed shots. Kansas, meanwhile, had second chances on just 29 percent of their possessions—good for 168th nationally. Those roles reversed in Omaha, as the Jayhawks collected seven more boards on the offensive glass and 15 more rebounds overall.
For Duke, the loss is another reminder of the inherent inconsistency of the one-and-done model they’ve adopted over the past decade. After the early season was marred by poor play and embarrassing defense, the Devils opted for a zone scheme, taken from head coach Mike Krzyzewski contemporary and Sweet 16 adversary Jim Boeheim. It made sense. Freshman phenoms, however offensively gifted, often struggle to defend with the same competency as their veteran peers. But while the change masked their deficiencies, it also left them open against teams with high-volume deep shooters like the Jayhawks.
At times this season, Duke looked unstoppable, occasionally stringing together runs reminiscent of the Golden State Warriors. One minute, they’d trail by a few scores. The next, they’d lead by 12. It was the same kind of spurt that put the Devils ahead in Omaha as regulation drew to a close. But the loss of Carter—the freshman center fouled out in overtime—was pivotal. Without their best defender, Duke flopped. Their advantage in the interior was negated, and the Jayhawks—ever desperate to score from deep—couldn’t miss.
As the years go on, it’s possible Duke fans will look back on this season with a sense of warmness. It delivered the school’s 21st Elite Eight appearance (the fourth in the past nine tournaments) and a number of exhilarating wins. But this Blue Devil team, like the one that preceded it, was a failure. Not since Kyrie Irving has a talent as seminal as Bagley graced the halls of Cameron Indoor Stadium. And like the archetype of Duke’s one-and-done model, the Devils’ freshman dynamo will leave without a banner to hang. He’ll likely be joined by at least two other first-round selections (Carter and Gary Trent Jr.) in this summer’s NBA draft, and as many as four overall. All of them, with the exception of Allen, will do so without hardware. And while it may seem harsh to judge a team’s season on a championship-or-bust scale, it’s the corner Krzyzewski’s squads have painted themselves into.
Year after year, the collection of talent in Durham outshines all foes that cross their path. But with growing regularity, it’s the underdogs who emerge victorious. The 2015 title team was remembered for its trio of highly touted freshmen (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones), but its season would’ve ended without a title had it not been for more experienced players like Quinn Cook or Amile Jefferson. The lack of continuity on offense and chemistry on defense means that well-versed sets are replaced by isolation and hero ball, and lockdown defense is spurned in favor of the zone. Next season, another top recruiting class will grace Duke’s campus. It’s likely they’ll find themselves, as this year’s team did, with a no. 1 preseason ranking. And if recent history has taught us anything, it’s just as likely that they’ll find themselves here at the end of the campaign, on the outside looking in as a less-heralded team marches onward to the Final Four.
Still, the Jayhawks should be celebrated. In a tournament hellbent on trampling top seeds, they managed to grind through the Midwest region and emerge with segments of twine tucked into their hats. The question now is whether or not they have a real chance against Villanova in the Final Four. While Duke and Kansas waged a war of attrition, each team accidentally backing into leads, the Wildcats played poorly against Texas Tech earlier on Sunday and still scored 71 points on the third-best defense in the nation.
As my Ringer colleague Rodger Sherman outlined last week, Villanova’s offense is arguably among the best in college basketball history. Since 2002—the earliest that KenPom data is available—only 2015 runner-up Wisconsin has posted a better adjusted offensive efficiency. Villanova’s defense isn’t much worse, either, checking in at 13th nationally, placing them second among teams remaining. If Kansas can count on Newman to play up to his tournament standards and can continue its hot shooting from deep, they could knock off the Wildcats. Anything less than perfection, though, will probably mean an end to the Jayhawks’ season.
The winner of Saturday’s Final Four matchup, be it the Jayhawks or (more likely) the Wildcats, will be heavily favored in Monday’s national championship. Loyola-Chicago’s Cinderella run has captured the heart of a nation, and Michigan’s perseverance through a number of close calls has brought them this far, but neither has faced a juggernaut like Villanova or Kansas. Still, based on everything that’s played out since the Dance first began in Dayton two weeks ago, only one thing remains certain: The bettor’s favorite is as likely to hang a banner as they are to watch the next game from home.