Comparing the 2018 Duke Basketball Team to the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs, and why they matter to me

I think I finally know who the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs most remind me of:

They remind me of the 2018 Duke University basketball team.

On the surface the comparison is an obvious stretch, but this blog isn’t about the surface of anything. The Chiefs are a football team. We know this. The Duke basketball team is… you get it. But in terms of pure talent — or more precisely: star power — and the inevitability of winning, where anything short of a championship is considered a disappointment at best, and a failure at worst, only these two teams stick out in my mind.

The 2018 Duke basketball team was famous for having three of the top freshmen in the country: Zion Williamson (who was selected 1st overall in the 2019 NBA Draft), R.J. Barrett (3rd overall) and Cam Reddish (10th overall). Following the absolute destruction of the preseason #1 Kentucky Wildcats in the first game of the season, a 118-84 Duke win that has a full season’s worth of highlights [which you can see below], Duke was the hands-down top team in the country for the rest of the year. After that game their odds of winning the National Championship went from 7-to-1 down to less than 3-to-1 in some places. It was one of the great college basketball teams in history.

Duke finished the regular season 29-5 — with three of their losses coming down the stretch when Zion was injured — and went on to lose to Michigan State by 1 point in the Elite 8. As a Duke fan my own personal disappointment was real, just as it is every other year Duke doesn’t win it all. But the thing I was most upset about was it felt like that team deserved it. Everyone knew they were the best team in the country in 2018. The best team in the country is supposed to win the championship.

Unfortunately sports don’t work that way. They certainly don’t give a damn about my feelings. And in the era of one-and-done players I knew there was nothing left to build. There was nothing left to root for. Zion and RJ and Cam weren’t going to be around to give it another go. They had to go to the NBA, Duke had to recruit and sign another batch of one-and-done players, and I knew I would probably never see such a great Duke team again.

Luckily my despair wouldn’t last very long. Just a handful of months later Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes would take over, and once he did I realized my other sports teams didn’t matter so much. Mahomes won the MVP in 2018 by throwing for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns; in 2019 he led the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl victory in 50 years; and in 2020, everyone more or less expects the Chiefs to do it all over again. They are currently 9-1.

Last year’s Chiefs — officially, the Super Bowl Champion Chiefs — kind of snuck up on everyone. Everyone was aware that Patrick Mahomes was great, but he got injured early in the year and the team started only 6-4. They had to grind to win games down the stretch. Their 6-4 record suddenly became 12-4, and as the #2 seed in the AFC they went on to defeat the Texans (51-31), Titans (35-24), and 49ers (31-20) to secure their first Lombardi Trophy since 1969.

It was a helluva finish, but it was far from The Year Of The Chiefs. Remember, they were only the #2 seed. The Baltimore Ravens went 14-2, and their quarterback — Lamar Jackson — ended up winning the league MVP award. The Chiefs won the Super Bowl in 2019, but anyone would tell you it was Lamar Jackson’s year and it was the Ravens who were favored to win it all. They would have been at least 3-point favorites against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship, only Baltimore never made it.

I think that last paragraph is an important one, because the 2020 Chiefs have clearly blossomed into the hunted, rather than the hunter. Every game they play they are absorbing their opponent’s best shot. I mean, after all. They are playing Patrick Mahomes. They are playing the world champs.

More than anything, that’s what makes this Chiefs-Duke comparison stick: every time Duke plays they are getting the best shot from their challenger, since Duke is and has been the premier program in college basketball since the early 1990’s. They are the standard-bearer for the sport. They are the team random fans like to root against, because they are the team that is consistently great — not just good — and so they are the biggest game on every team’s schedule.

The Chiefs have been under the radar for long enough, and it’s due to the idea that the Patriots have been atop the football world since the early 2000’s. Once Patrick Mahomes secured his first Super Bowl, however, that all changed. The Chiefs are now the team everyone else circles, since every player and every team they face know that the football world will be watching whenever Mahomes is on the field.

What I can’t shake is Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s press conference once his 2018 squad got upset by Michigan State in the Elite 8. Over the years Coach K has not had the most graceful exits from the NCAA Tournament, whether it’s reporters asking him dumb questions or his chiding of opposing players for not winning the “right way.” Maybe it was the fact that he lost to Tom Izzo — one of his best friends in the industry — or maybe it had to do with being self-aware for all the times he handled these losses the wrong way. But it was interesting nonetheless.

I wouldn’t say he was relieved, because that would be too strong and would ignore the reality that he just lost a game he clearly wanted to win. It was just different. He understood he had the best team. And he also understood how different this team was:

Our guys played their hearts out just like they have the entire year. These guys have been an incredible group for me to coach, especially at this time of my career, to be around a group that you love being around every day. That have accomplished so much. And really have been — have had the lead the whole year. With attention and schedule and everything else. And they’ve handled things so beautifully. I feel bad for them. They are deserving of special things. And they have had a special year. But this not going to the Final Four is obviously a big disappointment for us.

Again, the goal is to win. Not winning is the opposite to what every team sets out to do. But in this press conference — this moment — Krzyzewski sounded as if some things were just as important. What that specific thing was is anyone’s guess, but I think it had to do with having Zion Williamson take the world by storm. I think it had something to do with R.J. Barrett being the best Canadian basketball player in history. And I think it had something to do with the way Duke handled itself when the eyes of the world were upon them every time they stepped on the basketball court.

The Chiefs are in a similar spot because Patrick Mahomes continues playing quarterback for them. They have stars on offense — like Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins — just as they have stars on defense — like Tyronn Mathieu, Frank Clark and Chris Jones — and all the while they have one of the two- or three-best head coaches in the game. They are the Super Bowl favorite, because why wouldn’t they be?

But being the Super Bowl favorite — much like the 2018 Duke basketball team being the National Championship favorite — doesn’t mean very much unless they finish the job. Right now the Chiefs odds to win it all sit around +300, or 3-to-1, meaning there is only about a 25% chance that they repeat as champions. Factor in that betting markets usually take roughly a 40% vigorish on all future’s bets, and you can cut that number down to between 15% and 20% true odds. At best case-scenario that’s only a 1-in-5 chance.

Should that diminish the Chiefs season, should they go 14-2 in the regular season and fail to win the Super Bowl? Does that mean Patrick Mahomes isn’t the big game quarterback everyone perceives him as? Does it mean all the hard work the organization has put in to make the Chiefs the one team, above all, with a target on its back, goes for nothing? I would argue no.

Because while Duke failed to win a National Championship with Zion Williamson — possibly the best college basketball talent of all-time — it’s conceivable that they turned an entire generation of young basketball fans into Duke fans. Indifferent kids aged 5 through 12 could have seen Zion and RJ on TV and sparked an interest in basketball, or college basketball more specifically, or Duke basketball most specifically. Did they lose to Michigan State when it mattered most? Yes, they lost to Michigan State when it mattered most. But does it go for nothing?

The Patrick Mahomes revolution is similar to Zion Williamson’s, but we won’t see the fruit it bears for another decade or so. Every young quarterback nowadays is going to want to play like Mahomes, and in 5 or 10 years every quarterback in the NFL is going to imitate his signature style. That’s pretty cool, I think.

So while I compare the 2018 Duke basketball team to the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs, what I’m really comparing are two teams I love more than any other in their respective sport. I write about Duke because I love Duke. I write about the Chiefs because I love the Chiefs. I love sports. That’s all. I want to win in my life the same as I want my sports teams to win. I have more of a stake in my own life than I do my teams, but you get the point.

I have waited my whole life — 30 years, and around 20 with respect to the Chiefs — for a time when my guys were at the top. I consider myself lucky for that. And while odds are certainly likelier than not that Kansas City doesn’t repeat as champions, it’s my intention to go about losing the same way Coach K did when his best team in 2018 wasn’t able to win it all. Sometimes it’s more important to appreciate what you have while it’s there, and enjoy it, without being soured by the end result.

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