clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

March Madness Is Nearly Here

And Duke is looking like one of the better teams in the field.

Duke fans embrace March Madness.
Duke fans embrace March Madness.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

When the clock struck midnight Saturday, following Duke's decisive victory over Syracuse, it also signaled a turn in the calendar from February to March.

If you're going to shop Amazon please start here and help DBR
Drop us a line

And as every basketball fan knows, March is when everything that's really important in college basketball is decided. The first conference championship tournaments begin this week and NCAA Selection Sunday is now less than two weeks away. The first NCAA Tournament games - the opening round in Dayton - starts two weeks from today. By the end of the month, we'll be down to the four teams playing in Indianapolis.

Am I the only one who gets goosebumps thinking about that?

It's especially exciting this season, when Duke clearly has a team that's capable of competing for both the ACC championship in Greensboro and the NCAA championship in Indy. No guarantees, of course - the nightmares of 2012 and 2014 have cured us of over-optimism - but still, Mike Krzyzewski's entire postseason track record would tend to suggest that he knows how to handle March.

Dick Vitale was talking about that Saturday during the Syracuse game. He praised the Blue Devils for their successful regular season, but pointed out that at Duke's level, every season is judged by postseason success … and failure.

He's right that this has been a successful regular season. At 26-3, Duke has matched its best record through 29 games since the 2006 team opened 27-2. That team lost game No. 30, so with a victory over Wake Forest Wednesday night, the 2015 Devils can match the team's best 30-game start since the 1999 team opened 29-1.

On the other hand, several less successful Duke teams have also opened 26-3 before faltering - for instance, the 2008 team got to 26-3 before losing three of its last five games. That team lost in the ACC semifinals and the NCAA round of 32.

And Duke does have some concerns heading into March. There are health issues - both Jahlil Okafor and Quinn Cook are nursing sore ankles; Justise Winslow is still bothered by sore ribs; Grayson Allen has knee issues. This is still a dangerously thin team with just eight scholarship players. That's enough for a deep run in March, but leaves no room for illness or injury. The free throw shooting is worrisome … the guards are among the best FT shooters in the country, but the frontcourt players range from subpar (Winslow) to awful (Okafor and Jefferson).

The defense is still frustratingly erratic. It can be very good - as it was at Virginia, at Louisville and Saturday against Syracuse - or it can be painfully ineffective as it was earlier last week at Virginia Tech or in the first game against the 'Cuse. Then there's the defensive effort against UNC. Overall, it was poor with two exceptions - Cook did a great job preventing Marcus Paige for going off and the team as a whole did a solid job down the stretch of regulation and in overtime.

Yet with all that said, Duke is 26-3 against the ninth toughest schedule in the country (according to RPI). The Devils must be doing something right.

Obviously, the offense is a weapon. Okafor provides a steady inside scoring threat that few Duke teams have had. Cook is having an amazing senior season at the wing - he's still a good distributor, but now he's as consistent an outside scorer as there is in the ACC and he's - surprisingly - emerged as a defensive stopper. Winslow is a dynamic wing with the ability to shoot the 3, to slash to the basket and to create havoc in transition. If he had a consistent mid-range jumper, it's hard to imagine how good he would be. Tyus Jones is the most instinctive point guard that Duke has had since Chris Duhon (excepting the eight games in 2011 that Kyrie Irving started). And the freshman playmaker has displayed an uncanny occasion to rise to the occasion in big games and tough situations.

It reminds me of the scouting report on Jones I got from Mark Watson more than a year ago, when Jones signed with Duke. Mark told me that Jones was not a dominant athlete and that he didn't do anything spectacularly well, but he added "it's just that his teams always seem to win." I can see that now.

I think the thing about this Duke team that has impressed me most is its resilience. That includes the team's road record. With only the UNC game left to play, Duke is 9-2 on the road. But it's not the record itself - it's the performances on the road against teams such as Wisconsin (which is going to win the Big Ten regular season), Virginia (which just won the ACC regular season) and Louisville. That's a trio of road wins that nobody else in college basketball can match. Throw in wins at Syracuse and at St. John's and the team's road resume is hard to match, even by some Duke teams with better overall road records.

That's amazing for a young team -young teams rarely fare well on the road.

Resilience is also evident in the number of times that Duke has rallied from large deficits to win - the Devils overcame doubly digit deficits on the road at Virginia and St. John's and at home against North Carolina.

I think that will stand this team in good stead as it enters play in March, trying to build its legacy.


Technically, Quinn Cook will be the only Duke senior to be honored Wednesday night when the Devils play their last home game of the season against Wake Forest.

Realistically, it also will be the last game in Cameron for Jahlil Okafor and probably Justise Winslow … and very possibly Tyus Jones.

That's the four best payers on this year's Duke team and the departure of all four would leave Coach K scrambling to rebuild the team next season.

But for now, let's celebrate this class, starting with Cook, who has capped a good career with a great senior season.

Cook was a celebrated recruit, whose status suffered when he suffered a serious knee injury in the summer before his senior year of high school. The injury still bothered him as a freshman, when he played a very limited role on a team dominated by fellow freshman Austin Rivers.

Cook blossomed as a sophomore. He started at point guard on a Duke team that won 30 games and reached the NCAA Elite Eight before losing to eventual national champion Louisville. He averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 assists - the second best total in the ACC.

He earned third-team All-ACC honors.

Cook was a bit more erratic as a junior, starting just 22 of 35 games. His stats were similar (11.6 ppg, 4.4 apg), but late in the year, he was often replaced at the point by Rasheed Sulaimon. He did single-handedly almost save Duke from the embarrassment of the Mercer loss - Cook led the team with 23 points in that game, hitting 8-of-11 from the field (7-of-10 from 3-point range) and adding four assists and two steals.

As a senior, Cook has made the single most important transition on the team - moving from point guard to wing guard to make room for freshman Tyus Jones. Krzyzewski has lauded Cook's willingness to adapt to that role as a key to this year' success. His scoring average is up to 15.9 ppg (fifth best in the ACC) and he leads the ACC in 3-pointers made. He's emerged down the stretch as Duke's best on-the-ball defender and his leadership has been first-rate. At the same time, his scoring efficiency has increased - he's averaged 23.6 points a game over the last five contests and twice in that span has been named ACC player of the week.

Cook is going to finish with over 1,500 points and 500 assists - just the fifth Duke player to ever do that. He's currently on pace to beat Steve Wojciechowski's school record for career assist-to-turnover ratio.

That's an impressive career.

As for the three freshmen, if any or all do turn out to be one-and-done players, no one should complain about their contributions to the Duke program. Okafor ranks with Jabari Parker in 2014 as the most productive freshman in Duke history - and as a trio, Okafor, Winslow and Jones, have been combined to turn in the best freshman class season in Duke history.

Ah, if only they would stay four years, along with rapidly developing classmate Grayson Allen, I don't think there's any question we'd look back on this group as the greatest recruiting class in Duke history - more productive even that Dawkins, Alarie, Henderson and Bilas or Brand, Battier, Avery.

They won't stay that long - but no other freshman class has been as successful AS FRESHMEN as this class. We should celebrate that Wednesday night.

And if one or two do return next year, it will be a bonus that we can celebrate in a different way when it happens.


I've avoided writing about the Rasheed Sulaimon story because, frankly, I don't have any inside information.

But I was a little disturbed by how so much of the media reacted to Monday's story in the Duke Chronicle, alleging that Sulaimon was involved in two sexual assaults on campus. What bothered me was how many reporters seemed to connect Sulaimon's dismissal on Jan. 29 with that news and the angry resignation of a student secretary six days earlier.

Now, such a linkage is possible, but from what we know now, seems unlikely to me.


Because there are two strands to the Sulaimon dismissal story. One is the long-whispered sexual assault allegations. The other strand is the long-running story of Sulaimon's problems with team discipline and morale. We now understand that he was suspended for the Michigan game Dec. 3, 2013 (before any rape allegations were reported to the Duke administration). From everything I've been told, Sulaimon's mercurial attitude presented a long-term problem for Coach K and the staff.

Like many of you, I've heard of the stormy meeting after the Notre Dame loss, when Sulaimon reportedly met with K to complain about his playing time (just 12 minutes in the loss to the Irish).

Now ask yourself, which is more likely to have precipitated Sulaimon's dismissal from the team on Jan. 29:

-- The resignation of the student office worker six days earlier (before both the St. John's game on Jan. 25 and the Notre Dame game on Jan. 28) ... or:

-- The contentious meeting between Sulaimon and Coach K just hours before his dismissal?

It's certainly possible that new information will change my perception, but it now looks to me as if Sulaimon was dismissed for his attitude issues, not any long dormant sexual assault accusations. I can't see where anything involving the assault allegations changed since last March. It seems unlikely to me that the resignation of a student office worker would have suddenly (but not too suddenly …. six days and two games after the fact) have led K to suddenly reverse a year-long course and kick Sulaimon out of the program.

As for the assault allegations themselves, I have big problems with convicting a young man based on charges that have never been filed - not even with the student conduct office. I understand that often women won't come forward in such cases, but I also remember the Duke Lacrosse hoax, when the university embarrassed itself by virtually convicting three young men before they were ever brought to trial (on what turned out to be bogus charges). I also remember the University of Virginia's over-reaction to a story of sexual assault at a fraternity on campus - a story that has since been pretty thoroughly debunked.

University officials have to walk a fine line between protecting the accusers and the accused in such cases, especially in the current legal climate on campus. I want to get more information in this case before I either condemn or defend the administration for its actions (or inaction) in the Sulaimon case.


This season is the last time for a number of years that Duke and Syracuse will meet twice during the ACC regular season. With the victory, Coach K improves to 4-2 head-to-head with Jim Boeheim, including 3-1 in ACC play.

With the win Saturday night, Coach K also increased his victory lead over the No. 2 man on the career win list - 1,009 to 966 (Boeheim's total stayed at 966 after losing to Virginia Monday night).

That margin is likely to grow larger as this season plays out, since Boeheim can at most win one more game - and that is not a lock at N.C. State Saturday. Meanwhile Krzyzewski could add as many as 11 more wins.

The significance of that is that with a current margin of 43 wins (and likely to get larger), Krzyzewski has opened a gap that Boeheim can't possibly close with one great season. To catch and pass Coach K, he'll need to hang on at least two seasons longer than the Duke coach. And since Boeheim is two years older than his friendly rival, that's unlikely.

One more point about Syracuse, After the losses to Duke and Virginia over the last three days, the Orange is 18-12 on the season. Even if they beat N.C. State in the regular season finale Saturday, there is no way the Orange can get to 20 wins this season.

Getting to 20 wins was important to Syracuse. The Orange boasted the nation's fourth longest streak of 20-win seasons - 17 straight.

That dates back to Boeheim's 19-13 team in 1997.

Oddly, that was Duke's first 20-win season after 13-18 and 18-13 seasons in 1995 and 1996. It's a streak that Krzyzewski has extended to 19 straight seasons with this year's 20-plus win season. That's now the nation's third-longest 20-win streak.

It's easy to dismiss that achievement, but look at the ACC and measure the consecutive 20-win seasons for each school:

19 - Duke (counting 2015)

13 - Louisville (counting 2015)

12 - Pitt (needs one more win this season to make it 13 straight)

11 - North Carolina (counting 2015)

4 - Virginia (counting 2015)

3 - N.C. State (needs three more wins this season to make it four straight)

1 - Clemson, Florida State, Notre Dame (counting 2015)

0 - Boston College, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest … and now Syracuse. Of that group, Miami could still reach 20 wins with two more wins.

For the record, North Carolina holds the NCAA record with 31 straight 20-win seasons (mostly under Dean Smith). Syracuse has had 33 of 36 20-win seasons under Boeheim. Duke has had 30 of 32 20-win seasons since K had his first 20-win year in 1984.