6th seeded Duke had just watched 11th seeded Virginia Commonwealth's Eric Maynor knock down a 15 foot jumper with 1.8 seconds remaining to give the Rams a 79-77 victory over the Blue Devils in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
It was the first time Duke had lost an opening round game since 1996, and ended the program's streak of Sweet 16 appearances at nine. In that game the Blue Devils played 6-foot-3 DeMarcus as a de-facto power forward for 23 minutes while sophomores Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus combined for 47 points and were Duke's only source of offense.
The loss ended Duke's season at 22-11 with just an 8-8 conference record. On top of splitting their 16 conference games, the Blue Devils managed to win just half of their conference games at home, posting a 4-4 record at Cameron. Included in the eight conference setbacks were a pair of sweeps at the hands of North Carolina and Maryland.
Lost in the disappointment of Duke's worst season of the decade was the success the coaching staff had found on the recruiting trail. Duke had landed a three man class of Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, and Taylor King. All three were All-Americans. All three were expected to come in and help immediately - especially Singler who was considered the top small forward in the country and a top five overall prospect.
Things got worse a few weeks before the nation got a look at the new Blue Devils when McRoberts decided to leave school early. It was a loss that left the team with one traditional big man, the oft-injured sophomore Brian Zoubek.
Still, the three new comers immediately changed the fortunes in Durham. Singler averaged 13.3 points and 5.8 rebounds while playing the role of an undersized power forward 29 minutes per game. Smith played a much lesser role on the 2008 team, averaging just 14.7 minutes per game and 5.9 points. King would play just 10 minutes per game before transferring to Villanova following the Blue Devils' second round loss to West Virginia.
Despite the early NCAA departure, which would become a favorite talking point for Blue Devil detractors over the next few years, the 2008 season was a resounding success. Duke improved to an overall record of 28-6 and a 13-3 regular season record in the ACC. Duke also managed a split with North Carolina while taking both games against Maryland. At home the freshmen lead Duke to a 15-1 mark.
Singler would continue to play a big role in Duke's overall success as a sophomore in 2009. During that season, and again playing the power forward position, Singler averaged 16.5 points, and 7.7 rebounds in 32.2 minutes per game while Smith added 8.4 points in 21.6 minutes per night. As a team the Blue Devils won 30 of 37 games and posted an 11-5 conference mark which included another sweep of Maryland and an ACC Tournament Championship.
Despite a terrific season, the Blue Devils were blown out in the Sweet 16 by a much quicker and smaller Villanova team that capitalized on Duke's overplay defense en route to a 23 point blow out loss. As with any team who entered the tournament on such a high note, the fan base was supremely confident, but was quickly deflated after such a decisive end to the season. And things hardly improved when the team's most dynamic athlete and leading scorer, Gerald Henderson, unexpectedly declared for the NBA Draft.
That decision coupled with the graduation of Greg Paulus and David McClure, and the transfer of freshman wing Elliot Williams to Memphis didn't bring overly high hopes for the 2009-2010 season. Add in the reported contemplation of a transfer by Smith and there weren't a lot of high expectations for the 2009-2010 season. Certainly fans expected Duke to be good, but very few expected a fourth National Championship.
But the 2010 was about overcoming the odds and, in the process, cementing legacies. Duke finished with a second straight ACC Championship, a 35-5 overall record, a 13-3 conference record, and a perfect 17-0 mark at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
For Singler it involved upping his scoring average to 17.7 per game while playing 36 minutes a night. He also put together a brilliant Final Four performance of a combined 40 points, 18 rebounds, and seven assists against Butler and West Virginia. In those two games Singler shot 15-of-29 from the field and 6-of-11 from the perimeter.
Meanwhile Smith graduated into a full-time starter and averaged 17.4 points in 35.5 minutes per game. In the Final Four Smith, like Singler, played a big role in the outcomes with a combined 32 points and 10 assists in two games. By that point Nolan was cementing a legacy and building up for an ACC Player of the Year run as a senior. His best performance came against Baylor in the Regional Final where Smith logged a career high 29 points.
Following Duke's unexpected championship, fans and media alike declared the Blue Devils the odds on favorites for a repeat this year. Not only did Smith and Singler both return, but Duke welcomed one of the best freshmen in the country, Kyrie Irving.
The decision for Singler to return wasn't as cut and dry as Smith's either. Nolan announced he would return for his senior season on the floor during the celebration. For Smith it wasn't a tough decision as his draft stock hovered at the edge of the first round. But Kyle had a tougher decision. Draft projections placed him anywhere from the lottery to the late first round. At least two NBA sites declared Singler's stock as high as it would ever be.
And yet, Singler returned.
"I had two great options in front of me, but I did not want to miss out on all of the great things to come in a senior season," he told the media during his April press conference.
This year started off strongly enough. The Blue Devils ran out to an 8-0 record including a pair of wins over top five opponents behind the sensational play of Irving and the strong starts of the two senior All-Americans. Each of whom had settled into a clearly defined role that made Duke a runaway favorite to repeat.
And then Kyrie Irving got hurt. And missed 26 games.
Even though Duke would post a 22-4 record in those games, the fan base continued to play a game of "what if". What if Irving was healthy? Would Duke be undefeated? And other questions of that ilk. Through it all, however, the two seniors never complained. After three years and a National Title, an injury wasn't going to stop them from performing at a high level. Nor leading their team to another big year.
Despite the way it ended, the 2010-2011 season was a fitting curtain call for Smith and Singler. Smith was one of the five best players in the country and took home a nearly unanimous vote for ACC Player of the Year honors. Meanwhile Singler struggled with his perimeter shot, but still managed to average 17 points and seven rebounds while always guarding the opponents' best player. Even against Arizona's Derrick Williams, Singler battled and fought. And did all he could to prevent his team from giving up.
But it wasn't enough. Even with the return of Irving, Duke didn't play well enough to provide a storybook ending for Smith and Singler. Much like the Villanova game two years prior, Duke was out-hustled by a very athletic and more aggressive opponent. For the Blue Devils to move on it would have required both seniors to be on their game. Singler was. Smith wasn't.
Without both their seniors player at their best, Duke lost. By double figures in the Sweet 16. Again.
Certainly it wasn't the way things were supposed to end. Not for either player. And while both will subscribe with their head coach's mantra of "Next Play" as they move on to their professional careers, neither will feel as though their careers ended as they should. However, both players will be able to look back on their four years in Durham and realize their legacy is among the best of any four year class.
Next season the Blue Devils will once again be starting over. There will be talented players on the roster. And Coach K will be on the sidelines. But there are no defined leaders readily identifiable. Perhaps Seth Curry will step up as a second year starter. Perhaps one or both of the Plumlee brothers can take the next step in his development. Maybe freshman phenom Austin Rivers will come in and be the face of the program. Or maybe one of the secondary rotational players will step up with a year of experience.
Regardless of which player or players steps into the role of team leader in 2012, a debt of gratitude will be owed to both Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. When those two came into Duke the Blue Devils were coming off their first double-digit loss season in 11 years. Four years later the program has won three consecutive ACC Championships, averaged 31 wins per year, has won four of the last five against North Carolina, and has lost two of the last 67 games played in Cameron while winning the last 34.
All because Singler and Smith came in and left the program better than they found it.