Winning a national championship is every college basketball player’s dream. When you don’t accomplish that goal, it’s definitely disappointing. But only one team can win it all, and there are hundreds of student-athletes feeling the same as my Duke Blue Devils right now. Every year, Coach K would tell us that even with his storied success in the NCAA tournament, almost every season besides three (at the time) ended in a loss. You just can’t win every year.
For a lot of programs, making it to the Sweet 16 is almost like winning the championship. That's not the case at Duke. I know the program doesn't look at this year as a failure, but of course we wanted to win the whole thing. Who doesn't? Regardless of how the season ended, as a Duke graduate, I am very proud of this years' team. People thought we’d have a down year after winning the title the year before, but losing three players to the NBA. They experienced some difficulties throughout different stretches of the season, but they stuck together. And they did have some really good moments, like beating Carolina (who’s headed to the Final Four), and some other tough wins. Though young, they were an extremely resilient and hardworking group. They were one of the last 16 teams standing, and at points during the year, they were out of the top 16 in terms of ranking. So they really came together toward the end of the year and worked themselves back in to the mix.
I didn’t get to see the Sweet 16 game vs. Oregon live because we had a game that night. But my guys went up against a tough, #1 seeded team, and knew going in that they were going to be challenged. We faced a talented player in point guard Dillon Brooks, who had a great game, and then we didn't play our best ball. And when that happens, you usually get eliminated. That’s what this time of year is about. In addressing the team after the tough loss, I can't imagine that Coach K was too negative toward his team because they did play hard for him all year. From my experience, Coach K is the ultimate motivator and gives some great speeches. However, his best words were typically before we headed out to win a game. I can't remember a GREAT post-loss speech (that I can share). Preparation is one of Coach’s keys to success. From experience, I know that there's no thought of his that would lead him to be prepared for a speech after not coming out on top. Competing and ultimately winning is the only thing important to him.
I know how tough it is to lose when you think you are capable of more. During my junior (and final) year of college, I didn’t play my best in the tournament. Our first-round game against Binghamton was an easy one for us to win, and we beat Texas after that and I played well. But Villanova (who went on to the Final Four) killed us in the Sweet 16. I played my worst game of the entire year. It was very disappointing. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that you are not going to be the champion, especially because I thought we had a team that could win.
That summer I left early for the NBA, and the following season Duke won the national championship. In a lot of ways I felt like I was part of the win because I played so many games and went through so many practices and battles with my teammates and friends who won it. Following the win, I saw one of the assistant coaches at the time, Steve Wojciechowski. He came over to me and said, “Man, you helped us get here. Just know that.” That was a great feeling! When Duke wins, we all win.
People always ask me, “Do you regret leaving early for the NBA?” The answer is no. I look at things realistically. Had I stayed, the team would have been very different. Team chemistry is such a delicate thing, and there’s no telling if we would have gelled as well with me there or not. My departure also gave guys like Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler a chance to really shine. I have no regrets. I made the choice to go to the NBA, and I’m currently living my dream. I wish we had won the national championship during my time there, when I had the chance! If there’s anything for me to regret, that would be it.
Now, as a seven-year NBA veteran, I can say that thankfully my play in the tournament didn't affect my Draft stock too much…and typically doesn't for most players. These young guys thinking of making the jump shouldn’t worry about how their play will affect them at the next level. NBA scouts look at players as a whole over a long period of time. A couple games probably won’t shape their opinion of you. Believe me, they know what you can and can’t do way before March Madness begins.
At the end of the day, so much of how the tournament plays out has to do with the talent level on a team. This weekend, we’ll see quite a few pros coming out of this Final Four. The NCAA Tournament is also about who is playing well at that time. If a team that started off strong isn’t gelling well at the end of the season, they can easily end up losing early on. It takes a team that’s playing their best ball at the end to come away a champion…and that’s true in both college and the NBA.
This time of the year in college can run you down a bit. However, I actually remember being in my best shape at the end of the season. There are times during the season when your body feels beat up. You’re traveling, you have schoolwork, practices, games. It can be a grind. But knowing that one loss means it’s all over…that’s enough incentive to remain focused and push through. In recent years, I think Coach K is more cognizant of the connection between health and performance, and the importance of rest. There are probably more coaches embracing that approach, especially with the advancements in recovery technology and training.
I feel really good about where the Duke program stands today. The current group has a lot of room to grow, and next year we have the #1 recruiting class coming in. And I assume that if Grayson Allen decides to come back to school, we’ll take the #1 preseason spot also. Kids want to be a part of a great college atmosphere and play for the best coach so they pick Duke. Now it's time to reload, move forward and chase championship #6. That's the process at Duke.