Kind of Blue

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.” You hear it from every corner of competition in the United States, where an incumbent stands alone at the top of the mountain until some David comes along with a slingshot and a dream. Staging such a coup carries utilitarian value, allowing the spoils to seep from the victors to those fast approaching. Sometimes David’s reign is short, a new David knocking his predecessor from the apex before he even has a chance to set his feet.

The Kentucky Wildcats were innocent until proven guilty. Then, just as quickly as Wisconsin seized the throne, they relinquished it to the unlikeliest of under-the-radar foes, Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils. With an historically uncharacteristic combination of star freshman talent and senior leadership, Duke charged through the 2015 NCAA Tournament with unprecedented fury, ripping the target off its back and tossing it into a garbage can in Indianapolis.

First things first: Yes, there was a blown referee decision, one which the refs themselves were apparently unable to investigate thoroughly. Yes, Sam Dekker had an off night, and yes, credit is due to Frank Kaminsky for the 20-and-11 he valiantly posted in his final collegiate game. It’s also a shame we didn’t get the privilege of a Nigel Hayes championship press conference, though the NCAA stenographer probably let out a sigh of relief upon seeing the result.

The game didn’t come down to a blown call (because, if we’re being truthful, there were plenty of horrendous judgments down the stretch against both teams) or Dekker’s hiccup. Ever so slightly, Krzyzewski out-coached the brilliant Bo Ryan, who himself had orchestrated so many wonderful pivots throughout this season and in this tournament. Though it is telling that 50% of Wisconsin’s losses came at the hands of the Blue Devils, that’s no insult to Ryan.

When star forward Jahlil Okafor predictably found himself in foul trouble against Kaminsky in the first half, Krzyzewski pulled him, knowing full well the risk he was taking. Okafor was a relative non-factor overall, though his presence on the floor typically commands attention such that it opens opportunities for his teammates. With only eight scholarship players on the roster, Krzyzewski had to display the same shrewdness that earned him four previous national titles, as well as a couple of gold medals as coach of Team USA Basketball. 

On that Olympic squad: Coach K has utilized the resources available to him, such as the youth network, to be able to scout for Duke, like some kind of Teenage Mutant Ninja AAU squad. As one of my friends who is a Kentucky fan put it, the time of moral exceptionalism for Duke and “the Duke way” is over, and has been since at least the recruitment of Kyrie Irving. Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Okafor all played together at the youth national level prior to arriving at Duke, giving Krzyzewski easy access to see them in person. What Coach K is doing isn’t any better or worse than what John Calipari is doing, and his inevitable rejection of a system that simply doesn’t work may be the best clarion call for change in the NCAA’s treatment of one-and-done prospects yet.

Duke’s lockdown defense, full of switches and omnipresent in this tournament, vacuum-wrapped the Badgers, taking away any possibility of a meltdown akin to the one at home against Miami earlier this season. Marshall Plumlee and Quinn Cook carried themselves with the confidence betraying their senior status, but so did Tyus Jones. Amile Jefferson crashed the boards to account for Okafor’s absence, though Justise Winslow’s rebounds issued the programmatic statement. And, of course, there was Grayson Allen, future Most Hated College Player in America.

Allen, a less heralded freshman next to his star teammates, came off the bench to score sixteen points and, along with Jones, lead a key second-half run that put the game in Duke’s pocket. He did all of the stereotypical Duke things – namely, drawing fouls while scoring over much taller defenders at the rim while abusing the floor on defense – and is not an NBA prospect, so we’ll likely get plenty more of him in the future.

As Nate Scott at For The Win wrote, “While Okafor and Winslow were almost too likable this year, Allen is the perfect blend of Dukeness that Christian Laettner wrote the book on back 25 years ago.” Read: he’s a white scorer with a shit-eating face that you’d like to punch, but he can play. For proof, just look at the photo at the top of this piece, with Allen staring directly into the camera over Winslow’s shoulder, as if to remind you that he’ll be back. You can almost see the “Soon” in Impact font superimposed below his eyes. Isn’t this why having Duke on the national stage is such a thrilling pastime?

*     *     *

We may recall this college season as one of compromise. Our expectations, of course, blew way out of proportion when placed in the hands of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, only for an effervescent bunch of Badgers to stick a pin in that balloon. Coach K has triumphed in the same way that Coach Cal already did with the Anthony Davis version of the Wildcats, conscientiously rejecting the archaic four-year student-athlete model to, ostensibly, do right by his players. Losing to Mercer in the opening round will do wonders for a program’s ethos.

This Duke team never inspired the outrage typical of Blue Devils past, at least until Allen started hitting twisting layups and showing his face in public. Okafor, Jones and Winslow were all objectively likable and charismatic players who may end up on your favorite professional team next year, so why bother investing hate for a single season?

With all the cries of the college game going to hell in a hand check, and the disappointing final score tallies of some games amounting to a single Mike D’Antoni-coached quarter, perhaps Duke’s victory is the catalyst the powers that be need to change. Of course, the NCAA, like all reigning tyrants, will be reluctant to surrender control. Maybe Krzyzewski, fresh off a national championship and with more influence than ever, has just the right combination of slingshot and stones.

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