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Featherston On Duke & The Start Of The ACC Season!

Al Featherston is sponsored by the Bleu Poupon Society in memory of Mrs. H

Based on the RPI, both of Duke’s opponents this week are very similar
teams. Both Temple and Virginia Tech are ranked in the top 100 ... neither
is in the top 50. But there’s a significant difference between Duke’s
Tuesday night opponent and the team the Devils play Saturday -- one is a
non-conference opponent; one plays in the ACC.

"Starting on Saturday, the world changes," Mike Krzyzewski said.

The Blue Devil coach has been around long enough to understand the
difference in intensity between ACC and non-conference games. He understands
that the start of conference play is basically the beginning of the second
of three mini-seasons within each real season.

The first mini-season is the November-December non-conference schedule – a
time to learn about and develop the team; maybe to enjoy some exotic travel;
and to pile up a bunch of wins that could come in handy at tournament
selection time. The second mini-season is the conference season, which will
open Saturday when Virginia Tech visits Cameron. Sometimes the schedule
forces an ACC game into December (eight ACC teams played a league game in
December this season), but the real conference season – the two months of
bi-weekly games – always comes right after New Year’s Day. It’s the time
when a team defines itself against its real rivals.

Of course, the third and most important mini-season is postseason – the
conference and national tournaments that determine championships.

In the last decade, Duke has always done well in the first mini-season. The
Blue Devil’s pre-New Year’s record over the last 10 seasons:

1997-98: 11-1 (1-0 ACC)
1998-99: 12-1 (1-0 ACC)
1999-2000: 8-2 (0-0 ACC)
2000-01: 11-1 (0-0 ACC)
2001-02: 11-0 (1-0 ACC)
2002-03: 7-0 (0-0 ACC)
2003-04: 9-1 (0-0 ACC)
2004-05: 8-0 (0-0 ACC)
2005-06: 12-0 (1-0 ACC)
2006-07: 12-1 (0-0 ACC)

That’s a combined 101-7 record in November/December in that span, a winning
percentage of 93.5 percent. This year’s pre-New Year’s record matches the
most wins ever in that span, but isn’t especially eye-popping in context.
And I might suggest that early season success isn’t necessarily a good
indicator of eventual success. Duke had a perfect early season record in
2003 and 2005 – the only two seasons in that span when Duke didn’t win at
least 13 ACC regular season games. The 2002 Duke team that fizzled in the
Sweet 16 had a better pre-New Year’s record than the 2001 team that won the
national championship.

No, what blew me away when I did this study was Duke’s recent record in
January. Over the same seasons cited above, Duke has gone:

1998: 8-0
1999: 9-0
2000: 8-0
2001: 8-0
2002: 8-1
2003: 7-2
2004: 9-0
2005: 8-1
2006: 7-1

That’s 72-5 over the last decade in the first month of the New Year – a
winning percentage of 93.5.0 percent. That’s exactly the same as Duke’s
winning percentage in November/December over the same span!

In February, the numbers drop slightly to 59-15, a mere 79.7 percent. In
March, Duke is 60-16 – a 78.9 percent figure that’s very similar to February

What do we make of those numbers? How is it possible that Duke has the same
winning percentage in January – largely against ACC teams – than it has had
in November and December, against largely non-conference opponents?
Especially when that early season period includes the bulk of the patsies on
Duke’s schedule?

I honestly can’t explain the phenomena, except to suggest it is at least
evidence that the criticism of Coach K’s non-conference scheduling
philosophy – criticism that comes from Duke fans as well as rivals – is
unwarranted. At the very least, K’s early season schedules seem to have Duke
well-prepared to start ACC play.

"Our schedule has been terrific," Krzyzewski said last week. "I think it’s
top five in the country, maybe better."

Actually, Duke’s schedule was ranked second in the RPI strength-of-schedule
rankings before the game with San Jose State. The contest with that 1-11
patsy dropped Duke’s SOS all the way down to No. 8 – still the toughest in
the ACC (UNC is second in SOS at No. 10; Maryland third at No. 41). The
Sagarin ratings don’t put Duke’s schedule in that class – the Devils’
Sagarin SOS is rated No. 102 nationally. Yet, even in the Sagarin ratings
that’s still the best ranking in the ACC (ahead of No. 110 UNC, No. 124
Virginia Tech, No. 178 Georgia Tech down to No. 290 N.C. State). Pomeroy
rates Duke’s schedule at No. 48 – still far better than anybody else in the
ACC.

The dropoff between Duke’s January and February success rate is harder to
figure. I thought for a moment that Duke’s relative success in January might
have something to do with the fact that most Duke-UNC games in the last
decade have been played in February and March. And it’s true that the two
Big Four rivals have met just twice in January over that span. The only
trouble with that theory is that Duke has a better record in the decade
against UNC (17-5) than against Maryland (15-7) – and the Devils have met
the Terps in January nine times.

Frankly, there doesn’t seem to be any real scheduling reason for Duke’s
January success. The Blue Devils have a very similar home/road split and
with the exception of UNC, there is no discernable difference between the
quality of January and February opponents. In fact, if I break down the
number of ranked opponents Duke has played by month in the last decade (not
counting this year), I get:

November/December: 20
January: 22
February: 24
March: 24

And when we track percentage of true road games (and neutral court games)
played per month, we get:

November/December: 6.5 percent road game/34.3 percent neutral court
January: 46.8 percent road games/1.3 percent neutral
February: 54.0 percent road games/0 neutral
March: 7.9 percent road games/91.3 percent neutral court

Okay, closer examination shows that the competition has been very slightly
better in February and the road rate has been significantly higher. The
March numbers are understandable, since that largely encompasses postseason
play. Duke’s postseason success rate in the period we’re looking at is the
best in the nation – nobody can approach Duke’s 25-2 conference tournament
record and the Devils’ 28-8 NCAA record is four more tournament wins that
any other program has recorded in that span.

The odd thing about this year’s schedule is that it does appear to be very
clearly front-loaded with a far easier January lineup than what Duke will
face in February. But before we look at the unbalanced schedule, let’s take
a minute to talk about the importance of the conference regular season race.

How big a deal is winning the ACC regular season title?

***

There’s a very good reason that the Southern Conference always used a
postseason tournament to determine it’s postseason basketball champion.

For many years, the league was so large and so varied that it was
impossible to arrange anything like a balanced regular season schedule. When
the first Southern Conference Tournament was played in Atlanta in 1921,
there really wasn’t a conference per se – just an invitational tournament
that any interested team in the South could enter. Even as the league
membership stabilized in the mid-1920s, it remained a mismash of future SEC
and ACC powers, along with smaller schools such as Mercer, Newberry,
Tennessee-Chattanooga and Washington & Lee.

Even as late as 1952 – just before seven Southern Conference members broke
off to form the Atlantic Coast Conference (Virginia, which had left the
Southern Conference earlier, later became the eighth charter member of the
ACC) the regular season conference schedule was a mess. West Virginia
finished first in the regular season with a 14-1 record, but played just one
game against the league’s other two powers. N.C. State finished second at
12-2, but didn’t play the Mountaineers. Duke finished third at 13-3,
splitting two games with N.C. State, but losing its one game in Morganton.

So not only did the league’s trio of powers all play a different number of
games, they played a greatly different strength of schedule within the
league. It was much more fair to determine the conference champion in a
postseason tournament – or it would have been had not the postseason
tournament been played on N.C. State’s homecourt.

The same reasoning explains the first ACC Tournament in 1954.

That season, with the league coming together so quickly, it was impossible
to synchronize schedules. Duke finished first in the standings with a 9-1
record. But Wake Forest played 12 conference games, UNC played 11 ... down
to Virginia, which played just five league opponents.

Again, it made much more sense to determine the first ACC champion in the
postseason tournament (although, again, it would have been a bit more fair
to have held the tournament on a neutral site and not on N.C. State’s home
floor).

All of that changed in 1954-55. The now-established eight ACC teams played a
14-game home-and-home schedule. With only a couple of exceptions due to some
extreme circumstances, the balanced schedule because a fixture for the next
three decades. True, the number of league games dropped to 12 when South
Carolina left the league after the 1971 season, but the ACC returned to 14
games when Georgia Tech joined the league in 1980. And when Florida State’s
addition in 1992 turned the ACC into a nine-team league, the schedule
expanded to 16 games.

The point is that from 1955 to 2004, the ACC played a balanced regular
season schedule – every team played exactly the same league schedule as its
opponents. And during that era, coaches were almost unanimous in their
belief that the regular season championship was a better, more accurate way
of determining a champion than a three-day, single-elimination tournament.

So how come the ACC didn’t adopt the coaches’ philosophy and do what almost
every other conference did – crown its regular season first-place finisher
as the champion?

Well, there are two reasons. One is money – the first ACC Tournament
generated a profit of $36,000, which was a very welcome sum in those days.
But I think it’s a mistake to attribute the retention of the ACC Tournament
to greed. I would argue that a more powerful factor was inertia ... or, if
you’d rather, tradition.

The fact is that the ACC didn’t make a conscious decision to crown its
champion during the tournament. It’s just that after a half-century of the
Southern Conference Tournament, everybody – coaches, players, media,
administrators and fans – all assumed that the tournament winner was the
league champion. It wasn’t until July 1, 1961 that ACC officials changed
their by-laws to recognize the tournament winner as the league’s official
champion.

That set off a 30-year battle between coaches who wanted to honor the
regular season winner and the reality of a league that had decided to only
recognize the tournament winner. The coaches scored a minor victory in 1990,
when they got the league to officially recognize the "regular season
champion".

The tipping point was sympathy for Clemson, the one charter member of the
ACC that has never won a league title in basketball. In 1990, Cliff Ellis
guided the Tigers to a first-place regular season finish. Naturally, Clemson
choked in the tournament, losing in the semifinals to Virginia, but Ellis
was popular with his fellow coaches and ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan was
maneuvering to gather support to expand the league (by adding Florida State)
and it didn’t hurt to do something to keep Clemson – and the league’s
basketball coaches – happy.

The ACC actually gave Clemson a small trophy for its 1990 "regular season
championship". That’s the only time -- no regular season champ since has
gotten any hardware. More importantly, the league acknowledged the existence
of the regular season champion, although the same meeting made it clear that
the tournament champion would remain "The" ACC champion.

As an interesting aside, the league authorized schools to hang banners for
their regular season championships – provided they were designated as
"regular season championships." It’s not clear whether that means it’s okay
to hang a huge banner proclaiming "ACC champions" with a small tag
underneath explaining "regular season" or "tournament" as if the two were
equal. That’s the way North Carolina had been doing it for years (even
before regular season banners were authorized by the conference office), but
since Duke has recently copied the Tar Heel practice, it’s probably better
to let that question slide.

***

When the ACC brought in Miami and Virginia Tech in 2005, it charged
everything. The coaches opposed the idea of expanding the conference season
to the 20 games it would take to retain the balanced schedule -- especially
since they knew it would have to go to 22 games when Boston College joined
the league in 2006.

The demise of the league’s cherished balanced schedule is one of the many
prices the league paid to get a football championship game (how’s that
working out?). It’s set up the possibility of a situation much like the
Southern Conference had in 1952, when the best teams didn’t play each other
and the one with the easiest schedule backed into the regular season title.
In a way, we had that problem in 2005, when UNC clearly benefited from a
schedule that gave the Heels more games against the league patsies than
runnerup Wake Forest enjoyed. It didn’t help that the first-place Tar Heels
only played the second-place Deacons only once.

The inequity of the schedule didn’t stop Roy Williams from cutting down the
nets after winning the "regular season" championship. Of course, Duke later
won the real ACC title a week later in Washington – and in view of the
unbalanced schedule, it might have actually been a more meaningful title
than the regular season crown ... for the first time since 1954.
The same applies this season as the 12 ACC teams embark on their wildly
uneven ride.

I thought about trying to break down the various conference schedules to see
who gets the breaks and who gets the shaft. The problem is that the league
is so balanced, especially in the middle, that it’s impossible to make that
determination until the teams sort themselves out.

For instance, Boston College has two games with Clemson and just one with
Georgia Tech. Are they better off than Wake Forest, which has two games with
Georgia Tech and just one with Clemson? How do you rank Boston College,
Maryland, Clemson, Georgia Tech or even the two Virginia schools? They all
have points in their favor and they all have question marks. Until you know
how those teams will sort out against each other, it’s impossible to compare
schedules.

Well, not quite impossible. There are a couple of judgments I feel safe in
making:

(1) North Carolina is the most talented team in the league. I’m not so sure
Duke is really the No. 2 ACC team at the moment, but based on all the
rankings and putting faith in Coach K’s track record, I’m going to make that
tentative call.

(2) Miami, Wake Forest and N.C. State look like the three bottom feeders
this season. All three will be dangerous at home, but appear to be a notch
below the rest of the league.

So let’s see how the schedules divide games with the A teams (UNC and Duke):

1. Georgia Tech is the only team that has four games against Duke and North
Carolina.

2. Boston College, Clemson, Maryland, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Wake
Forest have three games against the A teams. Interestingly, the first four
get two home games against the A’s and just one road game. Virginia Tech and
Wake Forest have two road games and just one home game with the top teams.

3. Florida State, Miami and Virginia have just two games with the top teams.
Miami and Virginia each have one home and one road game. FSU plays its
single games against UNC and Duke on the road.

[Note: Duke and UNC also played two A teams – the maximum, since they can’t
play themselves ... and please, no Ademola Okulaga or Nate James jokes].

Obviously, Virginia and Miami come out ahead here – with FSU just slightly
behind. Georgia Tech has the toughest road with two more games against the A
teams than three other schools.

Let’s see how it looks when we check out games with the D teams (State, Wake
and Miami):

1. Virginia is the only school that plays six games against the projected
bottom teams.

2. North Carolina plays five games against the D teams – and three of them
are at home.

3. Boston College, FSU, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Virginia Tech and Wake
Forest all play four games against the D teams. Interesting that Wake plays
the maximum, since again the Deacons can’t play themselves.

4. Clemson and Duke play just three of the bottom feeders. So do Miami and
N.C. State, although they could only play a maximum of four anyway.

Conclusion?

1. On paper, Virginia clearly plays the easiest ACC schedule possible with
the least number of games against the top two teams and the most against the
bottom three.

2. Georgia Tech plays the toughest ACC schedule. It’s not as clearcut as the
previous conclusion, but four games against the top two teams is a tough
hurdle and only two of the other nine contenders play less games against the
bottom three.

3. UNC probably has the second-easiest ACC schedule – five "easy" games and
just two "hard" games (although that is the most they could play).

4. Clemson and Duke play tougher than average ACC schedules.

5. Boston College, Maryland and Virginia Tech play the most average ACC
schedules. FSU’s schedule is just a little tougher than those three and not
quite as tough as Clemson and Duke.

We may have to revise all this in March, once we see how the middle teams
shake themselves out -- and whether the top two teams ARE the top two teams
and whether the bottom three ARE really the bottom three.

All that said, allow me to take a slightly closer look at Duke’s ACC
schedule.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s heavily front-loaded. Not that any ACC game is
a gimmie – remember how close Virginia Tech came to stealing a win in
Cameron last year? – but Duke’s early season ACC slate looks MUCH easier
than what the Devils will face down the stretch.

The January lineup is Virginia Tech at home, at Georgia Tech, at Miami, Wake
Forest at home, at N.C. State, Clemson at home and Boston College at home.
On paper, the toughest test will be the ACC road opener at Georgia Tech –
the other two road games are against teams that appear to be bottom of the
league. Two of the four teams that visit Cameron have never won there, while
the other two haven’t won in Durham in over a decade (the Deacons last won
with Duncan in 1997; Clemson in 1995).

But starting on Feb. 1, it gets a lot tougher. Duke goes to Virginia, where
the Cavs (one of the worst road teams in the ACC) have been tough under Dave
Leitao. Florida State and North Carolina visit Cameron in a four-day span.
Both played very well at Duke last year: FSU losing in overtime; UNC ruining
senior day. Follow those two tests with a trip to Maryland (always fun) and
a trip to Boston College. After a home game with Georgia Tech, trips to
Clemson and St. John’s follow. The month ends with a home visit from
Maryland, the most successful Cameron visitor over the last decade.

Thankfully, the trip to UNC is in March.

That’s a killer run. On paper, the only near-certain win is the game at St.
John’s. The teams that visit Cameron have all played well on Duke’s floor in
recent years – even Georgia Tech, which won in Durham in 2004. All of the
road games are against teams that figure to be in the ACC’s middle echelon.

Obviously, it’s important for Duke to get off to a fast start in the league.
And the Devils must not only pile up as many league wins as possible in
January, they must also use the month to toughen up for February.

"We’ll start growing more once Saturday comes," Krzyzewski said last week.
"When you get into conference, you are going to see a whole different thing.
People will get worn down. People will be enthusiastic. People will be hurt.

"I think our guys have done a great job getting to this point with the stuff
that’s happened. Record-wise, it’s been terrific ... not good, it’s been
terrific. What we need is what you need in any business -- is the
competition and the grind of doing it twice a week, home and away. Then you
see how you grow."

In the new unbalanced ACC world, winning the ACC regular season title is not
the big deal it once was. But surviving the ACC regular season is as
important as ever. Duke is a young team that has to win enough to remain in
the NCAA picture, while at the same time, the Devils have to improve enough
to become a real contender in March.

That all has to start Saturday, when Virginia Tech visits Cameron.