For one half of basketball in Anaheim, Duke looked like the same team they'd been all season. Sure, they were a little thrown by fouls being called on their stars – both Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler had two by halftime – but that's to be expected once they leave the confines of the ACC. They still led by six at the half, and Arizona needed Derrick Williams' fifth and frankly ridiculous three at the buzzer for it to be that close. Things looked pretty good; I think Ken Pomeroy had Duke's odds of winning at 91%.
And then the second half started, and Arizona absolutely destroyed them. What happened?
For one thing, there was the five minute stretch where Duke had one basket and no rebounds on either end of the floor. That was a 19-2 run for Arizona, where they turned up the tempo and absolutely dominated Duke inside. The defense was demanding enough that Singler and Smith were taking bad shots that weren't falling, and on every rebound the Wildcats came storming back on the fast break, going straight at the Blue Devil's interior defense, which wasn't set and really had no idea what to do with the quicker Arizona players. It was bruta, and for the most part it wasn't Derrick Williams doing the scoring during this stretch. He'd finish with a personal best 32 points and 13 rebounds, but the run that grabbed the lead was a true team effort.
Duke had too many big men who didn't stay home and focus on rebounds, and facing one of the best three-point defenses in the country, they couldn't get the offense going as they liked. Kylie Irving was able to get a lot of points on dribble penetration – he'd finish with 28 – but every opportunity for him to do so robbed Nolan Smith of the chance to do the same, and as such the senior never found a rhythm. There was a fair amount of debate how Kylie Irving's return would affect the Blue Devils for better or worse, but a lot of missed the point. Yes, Irving's a net plus. But in his absence, Duke had built their game around Smith's penetration and outside shooting from him, Singler, and Seth Curry. Adding Irving didn't fix their problems inside, so there's only a limited amount of improvement the team could hope to expect. It's like if Tyler Hansbrough came back to play for this year's UNC team. Would they be better? Yes, but Zeller and Henson are strengths for the Heels as it is. The perimeter shooting would still need work and opposing defenses would still collapse inside.
In the end, Duke had no answer for a hyped-up Arizona team. (One that was pretty mad at the refs despite being up 20. It was a new experience for these guys to play against Krzyzewski's patented ref-berating.) And their season ends in tears. Next season will find them without Smith, Singler, or most likely Irving; just new savior Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, a fistful of Plumlees and Ryan Kelly, who keeps being tagged with the next Kyle Singler label, but looks nowhere near as good as Singler was as a freshman. I don't see much help for their interior problems; they'll still be good, but the hype will recede to managable levels for a year. At least when Rivers isn't on the floor.