WASHINGTON — Tre Jones collapsed in a heap near midcourt, arms covering his head as he sobbed. The rest of Duke‘s star freshmen could talk about wanting to go further, about envisioning a future where they hoisted a national championship trophy, but Jones had lived it. He watched his older brother, Tyus, carry the Blue Devils on his back to a title four years ago. That’s how it was supposed to end this time, too.
Instead, the final curtain fell on college basketball’s biggest circus act Sunday, when Michigan State‘s Cassius Winston corralled an inbounds pass and dribbled out the clock on Duke’s season as the Spartan’s knocked off the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament 68-67.
“If you weren’t a Duke fan, everyone wanted to see us fail,” Jones said afterward, red-eyed, still choking back tears. “All the adversity, it made us so close as a group. We all wanted to win so bad, and that’s what hurts so much.”
Duke dangled precariously on the edge of tournament extinction in each of its previous two games, too, surviving only with a little help from the basketball gods. Still, when the Blue Devils’ luck ran out Sunday, it felt sudden.
For the past seven months, Duke (32-6) and its quartet of freshmen were a story so big that it overshadowed nearly everything else in college basketball. Zion Williamson‘s emergence captured the attention of everyone from Drake to former president Barack Obama, and each game brought with it a new set of highlights that seemed almost supernatural. And then, in a flash, it was over.
“It’s very upsetting to think about,” Williamson said. “You see all the faces in this locker room, and I’m just trying not to focus on [the future].”
For Williamson, though, the future seems clear. He’ll almost certainly be the No. 1 overall selection in June’s NBA draft. He’s already a national celebrity, and what awaits as a pro won’t be vastly different than the attention he’s already received at Duke.
Same is true for RJ Barrett, who missed a free throw he needed to make, then made one he was trying to miss in the game’s final seconds. He could follow Williamson as the No. 2 pick in the draft.
Cam Reddish returned from a knee injury and played 37 minutes, finishing with 8 points. He’ll also likely be an early selection in the draft.
Jones said he’s less certain of his plans. He could return to Duke. He hasn’t decided. Honestly, he said, he hasn’t wanted to think about it.
It was a unique experiment, this Duke team. Four freshmen, all top-10 recruits, hoping to traverse a spotlight unlike any in college basketball and win a title. On Friday, it seemed like destiny. On Sunday, it was all over.
“Only one team can be on top, and the odds are slim,” Williamson said. “The only opinions we’re worried about are in this locker room, and we battled. It’s not the ending we wanted, but we played our hardest.”
It’s entirely possible that this season will be remembered for the revelry that surrounded this Duke team, regardless of who ultimately wins the tournament. Williamson’s impact, in particular, figures to last well beyond Sunday’s buzzer.
“Everything that had to do with college basketball had Zion’s face on it,” Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
But that hardly soothes the sting delivered by the No. 2-seeded Spartans (32-6). What mattered as Winston dribbled away from Williamson and Barrett wasn’t the lasting legacy of this grand Duke experiment, but rather the suddenness with which it all came to an end.
“They’re deserving of special things, and they have had a special year,” Krzyzewski said. “But not going to the Final Four is obviously a huge disappointment for us.”