One of the best and worst parts of following college basketball is the finite duration of the players' careers. You know when you meet them as freshmen that they'll only be there on the court four years (at the most). Turnover and goodbyes are both inevitable and predictable - you know, for example, that when you see Kyle and Nolan check out of the game with 2:01 to play that you're never going to see them playing for Duke again. You get used to this, to a degree, as the years go by - it's never as hard as it is the first couple times, when the only players you've ever known as part of the Duke team leave. I was reminded of this last night when my wife, who is a Duke fan for no other reason than that she is married to me (a fine reason to be a Duke fan, if I do say so myself) was in tears* over the fact that Kyle and Nolan would be gone - she's only been following the team since they were freshmen, and she's never known Duke without them.
*it's only fair that I admit that my throat has been a little choked up and my eyes a little dusty as I write this post. It may get easier to say goodbye, but it's never really easy.
But we're also blessed to see players at a time of unique growth. They come to school as, in many ways, children - big, strong, talented children, but children nonetheless - and over the four years we spend with them we get to watch them grow and develop and mature until they leave Duke as adults.
One of the most rewarding things about this season for me was getting the opportunity to watch this team - and each of the players on this team - grow over the course of the season.
I loved Josh's infectious enthusiasm, which never left him through many minutes on the bench. Seeing how he harnesses that energy into what will almost certainly be a much larger role next season will be fun to watch.
I loved watching Tyler capitalize on opportunities that many thought he wouldn't get this year, and I'm looking forward to see what he can bring to the table next season. People in other threads are talking about a potential leadership void next year - I think Tyler can be a guy who steps into a leadership role. He seems a natural for it, and is someone who can set a tone for how the team plays, particularly on the defensive end of the court.
I loved watching Andre continue to refine his game beyond being a spot-up jump shooter with ridiculous range. His defense is so much improved from fall of last year, and his offensive game will continue to be more multi-faceted with more off-season work.
I loved watching Ryan develop from a high school player into a college player, and get his body to catch up to what has always been a very savvy basketball IQ. He's one of those guys who often seems to be in the right place at the right time. His hot shooting stretch in the middle of the season and his surprisingly (at least to some) high block totals give a hint at where further growth can take him as a player.
I loved watching how much better Miles is now than when he was a freshman. He looks more and more confident with the ball in the post, and his defensive fundamentals are continuing to grow. He'll never be a star, but his performance has been on a steady upward trend since he started his career.
I loved watching Mason show more and more of the skills that have people talking about him as a first-round draft pick. During the ACC tournament, when we ran the offense through him at the high post he consistently made good things happen. He's an underrated post passer with great athletic ability. If he comes back, I think he'll be much more of an offensive focal point.
I loved watching Seth play defense. Yes, his scoring was great, and yes, his performance against UNC in Cameron was marvelous, but his ability to stay locked up on guys on the perimeter is my favorite part of his game. He plays Duke defense the way it's meant to be played. His growth from his struggles in the early part of the season to being a deadly sixth man and then a starter played a huge part in keeping Duke a top 5 team all season long.
I loved the glimpses of Kyrie that we got as a player, but even more loved the extended time we got to watch Kyrie as a teammate. K talks about getting people to "unpack their bags" when they come to Duke, even if they only intend to be here for a short while - Kyrie unpacked his bags. It was a joy to watch how much he enjoyed being a part of this team. I hope, selfishly (even if I don't think it will happen), that we get to see him in a Duke jersey again. He never got the chance to really leave his mark as a player, but he left an indelible mark as a great teammate.
And then there's Kyle and Nolan. I'll always think of them that way, as "Kyle and Nolan," as a unit even though in many ways they couldn't be more dissimilar. Kyle, the introvert, the artist and the warrior, who took to any role he was given and only did whatever anyone asked of him as a player. Nolan, the extrovert, the comedian and the virtuoso, who initially struggled with his roles and his identity as a player, whose climb was rockier but whose peak proved higher. Their career arcs were very different, as well - Kyle was a starter from day one who showed us during his freshman year almost everything we would see from him over the next four - his toughness, his tenacity, his diverse offensive skills, and his heart. This is not to say he didn't grow - he's absolutely a better player today than he was when he first showed up, but he's been so consistently good for so long that people almost took it for granted. We'll miss Kyle tremendously next season - trying to find a way to replace all his contributions on the offensive and defensive end could be our most difficult off-season task. Nolan, on the other hand, developed from a role player into a starter into a star into one of the absolute best players in the country. He had so many amazing moments this season, so many times that he put the team on his back and carried us to a victory, so many "wow" plays. And he did it all with such tremendous enthusiasm and joy for the game. Nolan was the best ambassador for the program since Battier, and I hope he goes on to great things. Even if it doesn't get retired (or even if, many years in the future, it gets retired for some future star, yet to be born), #2 will always and forever be Nolan Smith to me.
Last night, the season ended in a loss. Most do. Kyle and Nolan had to finish their careers not in a shower of confetti, not with One Shining Moment, not with another national title, but with a sad, slow jog off the court, a hug and a consoling word from Coach K, and tears. But they had marvelous careers. They defended the home court in ways no other players have done. They won every preseason tourney, they won three ACC titles, and they won the national championship. They may not have won it all this year, but they are still leaving Duke as champions.
And, of course, hard as it is to picture the team without Kyle and Nolan, there will be Duke again next year. There will be 903. There will be continued opportunities to see the players on this team develop and mature. There will be a whole new class of kids come in and start their growth - Austin, Michael, Quinn, and Marshall (and maybe DeAndre?), we're all excited to have you come and be a part of our Duke family. And there will be another round of goodbyes whenever the season draws to an end. November can't get here soon enough. Let's go Duke.
Just be you. You is enough. - K, 4/5/10, 0:13.8 to play, 60-59 Duke.
You're all jealous hypocrites. - Titus on Laettner
You see those guys? Animals. They're animals. - SIU Coach Chris Lowery, on Duke