Tommy Lasorda was still managing the Los Angeles Dodgers when I heard him
make an interesting observation about Major League baseball.
Even the best teams in the Majors lose one third of their games, Lasorda
pointed out. And even the worst teams win one third of their games. It's
what happens in that middle third that separates the 1927 Yankees from the
Actually, that's a bad analogy, since the '27 Yanks are one of the few
teams in baseball history to play better than .667 ball (Anybody else think
it remarkable that the 1927 Yankees finished with a .714 winning
percentage - and star Babe Ruth finished with exactly 714 home runs? And
what do you make of the fact that the badge number of fictional cop Joe
Friday of Dragnet fame was also 714?). The hapless '62 Mets are also one of
the few Major League teams to finish with a winning percentage worse than
Still, Lasorda's point is valid and points to a significant difference
between baseball and other major sports. In college football, there's almost
always at least one unbeaten team every year. In pro football, the best team
usually will win 14 of 16 - that's .875 percent of its regular season games.
The last five NBA champs have averaged almost exactly a .700 winning
percentage and several have gone well over that.
Unbeaten teams are rare in college basketball. There hasn't been one since
Indiana in 1976, when Sean May's Daddy was playing forward for the Hoosiers.
And Bobby Knight's first NCAA championship team is one of just six unbeaten
NCAA Tournament champs.
My point is that unless you think this Duke team is very special indeed,
you need to understand that the Blue Devils are going to lose a game - or
two or three or more - at some point this season. When that happens, please
keep the panic and the hysteria to a minimum.
I bring that up because of the absurd over-reactions in the short span
between the miracle it required for Duke to overcome Virginia Tech in
Cameron and by the impressive rout of No. 2 Texas six days later in the
Meadowlands. And I'm not talking about the over-reaction of fans, but also
of veteran media members who ought to know better.
One minute, Duke is the weakest No. 1 team in memory - an illusion that
will crumble at any moment. The next moment, Duke is the best team in the
Doesn't anyone learn from history?
Even a cursory glance at recent ACC seasons would warn a casual observer
not to read too much into one game or even one stretch of games. Things
change. Teams evolve. Basketball seasons are like basketball games - teams
go on runs; teams go cold for stretches; you get a few breaks; a few breaks
go against you. Maybe a matchup favors you one game. Maybe it works against
you the next. Because a team is playing at one level today doesn't mean they'll be on the same level tomorrow.
It seems like such a simple and an obvious point.
I think back to February of 2001, when just after Duke stunned Maryland in
the "Gone in 55 Seconds" game, the dispirited Terps lost at home to Florida
State. As Juan Dixon and company left the court, they were unmercifully
booed by the Maryland fans, who couldn't conceive of the possibility that
their disappointing team would turn things around and would a month later
give Maryland its first ever Final Four trip.
Three years later, Georgia Tech appeared to be in the dumper after losing
eight of 15 games, including back-to-back ACC losses at home.
"A reporter who covers us wrote that we were in trouble," Hewitt said.
told him, 'I've been studying the tape those two games and I think we're
playing very well.' We just got beat by two teams that played better than us
on those particular nights. That can happen to you in this league."
Hewitt knew what he was talking about. The Yellow Jackets went on to win
nine of 11 games, including a five-game NCAA Tournament run that ended up in
the NCAA title game.
There are dozens of similar examples _ the 1997 UNC team that started 0-3 in
the ACC (and came within an Ishua Benjamin turnover of being 0-4), yet made
it to the Final Four; the Duke team that suffered four straight ACC losses
early in the 1984 season, yet bounced back to give Mike Krzyzewski his first
NCAA trip; and, the most famous of all, the 1983 Cardiac Pack that at one
point in midseason lost five of six games, then rallied to win it all one
magical night in Albuquerque.
Billy Packer made the observation about Texas after the Duke game that
teams that lose by 31 points don't win national championships. Technically,
he's probably right, but looking at recent ACC champs, I notice that UNC
lost back-to-back games by 26-points at Wake Forest and by 14-points at Duke
en route to the 1993 national title. Duke's 1991 national champs lost by 17
at Virginia early in the season, then fell to UNC by 22 points in the ACC
title game. N.C. State's 1983 national champions lost back-to-back games by
18 points to UNC and Wake Forest after Derek Whittenburg was hurt.
So a bad loss isn't necessarily proof that a team is not of championship
Sometimes it's easy to pinpoint why a team suffers vicissitudes. The loss
or the return of a key player can change a team's fortune dramatically.
But sometimes it's harder to pinpoint the reasons for a team's ups and
downs. Maybe it's biorhythms ... maybe a key player has just had a fight
with his girlfriend ... maybe it's just the pressure of class and school. I
used to wonder about some of the extremes that David Henderson endured
during his freshman season in 1983-84. At least I did until an assistant
coach clued me in that David was fighting to adjust to the academic
pressures at Duke and would often stay up all night before a game finishing
a paper or studying for an exam.
I'm just speculating here, but I wonder how much Duke's wonderful
performance against Texas was due to the weather threat that convinced Mike
Krzyzewski to take his team to New Jersey a day early. Instead of worrying
about school and exams, the Blue Devils got to spend 36 hours together,
focusing on the upcoming game.
The fluctuating nature of college basketball is one reason the
one-and-out NCAA Tournament is such a crapshoot.
How many times have we seen a team look invincible one night, then lose
in the next round? I can't help thinking about 1993, when Duke opened the
NCAA Tournament by hitting 14 of 19 3-pointers in a 105-70 victory over a
very solid Southern Illinois team. The Blue Devils looked so good that LSU
coach Dale Brown, who had just lost a heartbreaker to Cal in the night's
other game, said the Bears didn't have a prayer against the Blue Devils in
the second round.
Well, Brown was wrong (as he so often was). Duke cooled off from 3-point
range, shot a more modest 10 of 25 and lost center Cherokee Parks to an
injury late in the first half. As a result, Cal's prayer was answered and
Duke went home with an 82-77 loss.
Any of us could cite literally dozens, maybe hundreds of similar
examples. Suffice it to say that almost every NCAA champion has to endure at
least one heart-stopping moment along the way - whether it be 1982 UNC's
narrow second-round victory over James Madison; 1992 Duke's incredible East
Regional championship game victory over Kentucky; or 2005 UNC's near
collapse against Villanova in the East semifinals.
That's what makes predicting the NCAA Tournament so difficult and why
fans must temper their expectations with reality. We can look at this Duke
team and suggest that it's one of the three or four best teams in the
country - possibly the VERY best. But we can also predict with some
certainty that there will be some bad or unlucky nights along the way. If
one of those bad nights happens in January or February, it's not that
important - most teams lose and Duke could still end up ranked No. 1 with
two or three losses. But if the Devils have a bad night in March, that's the
end of the team's dreams.
So what are the odds?
It's interesting to note that in the first 57 years of the Associated
Press poll, the preseason voters have been far more successful at predicting
the final No. 1 ranked team (23 times) than in predicting the eventual NCAA
champ (14 times - and six of those in the middle of John Wooden's dominating
run at UCLA). Exactly 39 of those 57 preseason No. 1 teams have finished in
the final top 5 and 51 of 57 have finished in the top 10.
So the historical odds are overwhelming that Duke will finish as a top 10
team (89.5 percent), pretty strong that Duke will finish in the top 5 (68.4
percent) and even reasonable that Duke will finish as the nation's No. 1
ranked team (40.4 percent).
Unfortunately, the poll does not do as good a job at predicting the winner
of the NCAA Tournament. Just 14 of 57 preseason No. 1 teams - just barely
one in four (24.6) - have taken home the ultimate prize.
It's not clear that the odds are even that good.
When we look at the returns from the NCAA's modern 64-team field (adopted
in 1985), we see that just 4 of the 21 national champions started off as
preseason No. 1 - a discouraging 19.0 percent.
I was playing around with the numbers to try and see if I could find
another way to calculate the odds. I started looking at the No. 1 seeds in
the NCAA Tournament.
I don't think it's much of a stretch to suggest that Duke should earn a
No.1 seed this season. Based on the team's talent and it's ranking, that's a
reasonable expectation - one not subject (like tournament play) to the
normal fluctuations of a team over the course of a season.
If we assume that Duke is going to be a No. 1 seed, then we have 21 years
of history to guide our expectations. Since there are four No. 1 seeds each
season, that means we have 84 No. 1 seeds to track.
How many of those 84 have won national titles? How many have reached the
So far, 12 of those 84 No. 1 seeds have claimed the title - just 14.3
percent. The odds of getting to the Final Four are better, but still not
50-50 - 36 of 84 No. 1 seeds have gotten that far (42.9 percent). Duke has
done slightly better than those numbers - the Blue Devils have been a No. 1
seed nine times and in those nine tournaments has won two titles (22.2
percent) and has reached the Final Four five times (55.6 percent).
And if Duke winds up as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, the odds are even worse.
That's a lot of numbers to prove a simple point: NO TEAM, no matter how
impressive they look in mid-December, is a favorite to win it all. Not
against the field.
College basketball is a sport in which the best team doesn't win every
game. And in a one-and-done tournament that requires a team to win six
straight sudden death games, the nation's best team doesn't win every time
or even the majority of the team - not the nation's preseason No. 1 team and
not even the No. 1 team in the final AP poll, taken just before the start of
the NCAA Tournament (20 of 57 titles; 35.1 percent).
We can all remember the list of seemingly invincible teams that stumbled
in the NCAA Tournament - from Illinois last season to Duke in 1999 to Kansas
in 1997 to UNC in 1994 to mighty UNLV in 1991.
Sometimes the best team does win (as Duke did in 1992), but even then it's rarely easy. And it's usually not as much fun when a fan base expects a
Long-time Blue Devil fans (that sounds better than "older Duke fans",
doesn't it?) will still remember Kentucky's plight in 1978. The Wildcats
were No. 1 almost the entire season, except for a brief stretch in February,
where Joe B. Hall's team lost a couple of tough conference road games and
their fan base went ballistic. The Kentucky players arrived in St. Louis for
the 1978 Final Four carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.
They openly acknowledged that they would consider the season a failure if
they didn't win the championship. They called it "the season without joy."
That's what happens when expectations overwhelm reality. It would be a
shame if fans who don't understand the nature of college basketball let that
happen to this Duke team.
The 2005-06 Blue Devils clearly have a chance to
win the national title, maybe as good a chance as any other team in the
nation. But Duke's chances against every other team in the nation aren't
nearly as good ... maybe 14 or 19 or 24 percent, depending on how you
calculate the odds.
That's why it's so unfair that so many Duke fans I've talked to consider
1999 to be a disappointing season. Disappointing that the Devils came up one
play short in the final seconds of the championship game, yes. But is a 37-2
record (including a record 19-0 against the ACC) with an ACC championship
(both regular season and tournament), a final No. 1 poll rank and a runnerup
finish in the NCAA Tournament a less than satisfying season?
It seems to me that it's difficult to enjoy college basketball with that
kind of all-or-nothing mentality. Only one teams wins the ultimate title
each year, but lots of teams have good seasons.
So enjoy the season as it unfolds. Hope for the best to happen, yes. Pull
for the team to win every game and claim every possible championship.
But understand the nature of college basketball and keep the expectations
To change the subject:
I was working Sunday night and had to tape the Duke-Valpo game. Before I
watched the tape, I heard that Greg Paulus had just missed the Duke
single-game assist record -- his 15 being one short of Bobby Hurley's record
Assist records are a sore point with my friend Barry Jacobs, who
correctly points out that assists only became an official stat in the
mid-1970s, so to refer to any assist records is to ignore the fact that we
don't have assist totals for some of the greatest distributors in basketball
history. Bobby Hurley might be official NCAA assist leader, but we'll never
know how many assists Bob Cousy had at Boston College or Ernie DiGregorio at
Providence ... or Monte Towe or Steve Vacendak or Tommy Kearns or Lou
Pucillo or any of the great ACC playmakers in the early days of the
Also keep in mind that for more than a decade after assists did become
an official stat, there were wide fluctuations in the way the stats were
kept at various schools -- for years, it was almost impossible to get an
assist at Virginia, for instance ... and almost as difficult not to get one
at Clemson. That's one reason why Phil Ford's assist totals are so
remarkable -- he's the only player to play in the 1970s to show up on the
ACC career assist list.
In the early days, a pass to the wing for an open jumper rarely counted
as an assist. Neither did a pass into the post that led to a contested
shot -- it almost had to be a pass that led to an open layup.
I was curious to track Paulus' assists against Valpo to see what kind of
assists he was getting. As I watched the tape of the game, I broke it down
-- He had two passes to J.J. Redick for 3-pointers (including the one
that Redick converted into a four-point play).
-- He had another pass to Lee Melchionni for an open three.
-- He had two passes to Josh McRoberts that produced easy post baskets,
plus two more passes to McRoberts for slam dunks.
-- He had two passes to Shelden Williams for slam dunks, plus an inbounds
pass to Williams for an easy basket in the post.
-- He fed Eric Boateng for a slam dunk late.
-- He fed Jamal Boykin for two easy shots in the lane.
-- He fed a slashing Redick for a driving layup.
-- He fed a no-look pass to Martynas Pocious for a lay-up on tghe fast
That led me to the following observations:
-- Of Paulus' 15 assists, 14 came in the halfcourt set -- only the pass
to Pocius was on the break.
-- All of McRoberts points came off Paulus' feeds. In fact, four of
Paulus' assists went to McRoberts; three to Shelden and J.J.
-- Paulus ended up setting up all four of his freshmen teammates for at
least one basket.
-- Between 10 and 12 of his 15 assists would have been counted as assists
under the tougher standards that most schools maintained in the late 1970s
and early 1980s.
While he didn't have an official assist to Sean Dockery, Paulus did find
Dockery in the seam of the Valpo zone in the first half, putting him in
position to slash to the basket for a three-point play. He also had two
feeds to Williams in the post that led to two-shot shooting fouls, producing
another four points as Williams went 2-for-2 on both opportunities. Former
UNC coach Dean Smith always argued that such passes deserved to be counted
as an assist (which led to his oft-imitated refrain, "The way we keep it,
[fill in the blank] really had [fill in the blank] assists."
As of Monday morning, Paulus ranks second in the ACC with a 5.1
assist-per-game average. I don't have time to break down the early season
freshman totals for the ACC's all-time assist leaders, but I do have the
final freshman-season totals for the top five assist men in ACC history.
Paulus will have to improve his pace to get in a class with Hurley (7.6
assists a game as freshman), Chris Corchiani (7.3), Ed Cota (6.9), Steve
Blake (6.2) and Grayson Marshall (6.6).