The unranked Steven F. Austin State University Lumberjacks did the unthinkable last Tuesday in taking down the No. 1 ranked Duke University Blue Devils basketball team in an overtime thriller, resulting in Duke’s first non-Conference home loss in nearly 20 years.
At one point, the Lumberjacks were down as many as 15 points. For much of the first half, it looked like Duke would be able to cover its 27.5 point spread. But the Lumberjacks were eventually able to claw back and tie the score at 62 points apiece with eight minutes to play.
With less than 10 seconds on the clock, junior forward Gavin Kensmil dove for a loose ball and found senior forward Nathan Bain for the game winning fast-break layup.
Showing grit, passion and all of the other qualities NCAA fans have come to love in an underdog, the Lumberjacks pulled off an incredible victory, undoubtedly one of the biggest wins in the program’s history.
As glorious as the victory is for Steven F. Austin, all is seemingly dark for the Duke fanbase. The talking heads in the sports world have posed multiple questions surrounding the confidence of the players and their ability to bounce back, especially with the loss of freshman star Cassius Stanley to injury.
But as demoralizing as the loss may be to Duke, it ultimately means very little to the Blue Devils.
The first few weeks have shown that this NCAA season holds no clear favorites. Already three different teams (Michigan State, Kansas and Duke) have held the crown of the number one spot.
The Michigan State Spartans have already dropped two games, including one to the unranked Virginia Tech Hokies.
Earlier this month, the University of Evansville Purple Aces were able to upset the University of Kentucky Wildcats. And, of course, the Blue Devils lost to the Lumberjacks.
Despite the albeit embarrassing losses to mid-major programs, nobody should count out these powerhouse programs from bouncing back to a deep postseason run.
We fans have a tendency to over-sensationalize these upset victories from unranked opponents.
Especially when they happen in the NCAA Tournament, it is a treat to see your friends’ brackets busted and also a feel-good story.
The No. 11 ranked Butler University Bulldogs were able to make a run for the National Championship game, literally inches from winning the title off of Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave in 2010.
The following year as an eight seed, the Bulldogs made another run for the title game, losing to the University of Connecticut Huskies in a hard-fought game.
The Loyola University Chicago Ramblers made a run all the way to the Final Four as an 11 seed in 2018.
These teams are just a few of the underdogs that happened in my lifetime out of the many in NCAA tournament history.
However, these underdog stories unfolded in the postseason, which is still four months away this season.
The underdog upsets that have occurred so far carry little weight because it’s so early in the season, which means nothing is truly lost for the powerhouse programs who have lost as a number one seed.
This year, senior guard Cassius Winston and junior forward Xavier Tillman lead Michigan State. Tom Izzo, arguably one of the best college coaches today, is their coach. They will be just fine.
Kentucky has a solid squad with freshman Tyrese Maxey and junior Nick Richards leading the way alongside the great head coach John Calipari. They will also be just fine.
Duke is bringing back veterans in Tre Jones and Jack White with a strong freshman frontcourt of Vernon Carey Jr. and Matthew Hurt and the legendary Mike Krzyzewski is coaching them. Although Cassius Stanley is ruled out due to injury, the Duke bench has options in Joey Baker and Alex O’Connell to step up. They will be just fine.
I am able to see why someone would be skeptical to see me call Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky serious Final Four contenders this early in the season, given that the college basketball season is as long as it is. This season has also been particularly unpredictable overall so far.
But I stand by these claims because these losses have occurred so early in the season. These losses have been wake-up calls to the major programs, and it’s better to have these wake-up calls early in the season rather than in the tournament. With elite coaching like these teams have, results like these won’t be seen again this year.
As we have seen over the past several years, it is difficult to count out a team of Duke’s caliber from making a deep tournament run. The past two years, Duke has been stopped just short of the Final Four with an overtime loss to Kansas in 2018 and a one-point loss to Michigan State in 2019. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is one of the best at what he does, year in and year out.
I should note that the makeup of Duke is much different now than it was even last year with the loss of RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cameron Reddish. After landing the top three high-school recruits last year with an unprecedented freshman class, Duke’s recruiters had a tough act to follow. And while Vernon Carey has been great, the team has not been on the same level.
However, the attitude and leadership haven’t changed. Obviously the coaching staff has been the strong constant for Duke for decades. But sophomore Tre Jones manning the point guard spot is also a source of leadership and consistency for the team.
Krzyzewski shared his thoughts for this point in the season in a press conference with the media following the team’s recent win over Winthrop.
“We’re going to have to work through a bunch of things like that with this group,” he said. “It’ll take time and we’re going to try to muck it out and we know we’re not a top five team — maybe not even a top-25 team in the country right now.”
If anybody knows where a team is at, it is the head coach. Especially when you’re dealing with a coach with as much experience as Mike Krzyzewski. As the season progresses, I believe that the Blue Devils will be able to “muck it out” and find a rhythm.
So let’s all relax and enjoy Stephen F. Austin’s victory, because Duke will surely be a team to watch for a deep tournament run.