There's a saying in baseball: "Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher."
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It's true that momentum can be a fickle thing -- a team's cumulative past success is no guarantee of future success. All streaks end and every game is a new roll of the dice. But we have all seen teams that get hot, where winning seems to come easily … just as we've seen teams get in a slump, where losing becomes the norm.
Duke goes into postseason play on a remarkable roll after Saturday night's victory at North Carolina. That was the 11th straight win for the Blue Devils, a stretch that includes wins at Virginia, two wins over both Syracuse and North Carolina and a 30-point beatdown of Notre Dame.
Considering the level of competition that Kentucky has faced lately, it's fair to suggest that no team in college basketball has compiled as impressive a resume over the last 11 games. Certainly nobody else in the ACC comes close - the second-longest winning streak entering the ACC Tournament belongs to Boston College of all people, with three straight wins.
But does that strong finish to the regular season offer any guarantees - or even any indications of how Duke will fare in postseason?
Mike Krzyzewski doesn't think so. He was asked if we could read anything into the regular season finale at UNC.
"I just think it fluctuates from year to year," Coach K told reporters late last week. "I think both North Carolina and us have been the recipients of some tough losses in (the last game of the regular season) - sometimes 20-point losses. And, then, a week later you win the ACC title.
"I don't think you can predict that. I think whatever happens on Saturday night, on Sunday, you have to wash everything off - win or lose. You're 0-0 and see what happens in our tournament. Then you wash it off again. And you are 0-0 again going into the NCAA Tournament."
Very few Duke teams have closed the regular season with an 11-game winning streak.
The last team to match or better that closing run was the 1999 team, which entered postseason on a 24-game winning streak. Before that, go back to 1986, when Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and company took a 13-game streak into the ACC Tournament.
Those are the only two Coach K teams with that kind of finish. Vic Bubas' 1963 team won 15 straight to close the regular season.
All of those teams reached the Final Four.
The only exception would be Dick Groat's 1952 team. That squad won 13-straight entering the Southern Conference Tournament, but lost to N.C. State (on the Pack's home floor in Reynolds) and didn't get to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Streaks aside, the final weeks of the regular season usually - but not always - offer a hint of how well the team will play in postseason.
Here's a stat to ponder: Ten of Coach K's 11 Final Four teams have ended the regular season with a victory over North Carolina. The one exception was 1990, when Duke lost a heartbreaker to the Heels in Cameron on Senior Day.
Go back even farther and all three of Bubas' Final Four teams beat UNC in the regular season finale. Bill Foster's 1978 Duke team lost to UNC in Chapel Hill, but that was a night when senior Phil Ford had a career game and was actually a strong performance on the road by a young Duke team.
My point is that the Duke teams that will be successful in postseason are almost always playing their best basketball late in the season. I know that seems obvious.
Yes, the 2010 Duke team lost at Maryland in the last week of the regular season, but that was their only defeat in their final 10 games - and it was a strong performance on the road against a very good opponent that played very well. Plus, Duke followed that loss with a 32-point home beatdown of North Carolina.
Of course, there are exceptions.
The 1991 team that would win Duke's first national championship finished the regular season strong with an impressive win in Chapel Hill, but followed that with a 22-point loss to UNC in the ACC Tournament finals. The 2004 Final Four team dropped a homecourt game to Georgia Tech in the last week of the regular season.
But, usually a late embarrassment is a sign of trouble.
Just go back to last season, when Duke turned in a late clunker at Wake Forest. Or 2012, when a Duke team with a chance to win the regular season title was embarrassed by UNC in Cameron. That was before Ryan Kelly's injury, but it was a sign of the disaster to come.
Often it comes back to momentum.
The 2008 team was on a great roll late in the season, climbing to No. 2 in the nation after a 21-1 start (that included a win at UNC). But in mid-February, the Devils lost back-to-back ACC road games to also-rans Wake Forest and Miami and the team never really regained its momentum. Duke stumbled into postseason and made quick exits from the ACC and the NCAA Tournament.
The 1997 team had a similar experience. Starting with a homecourt victory over UNC in late January through a home win over Clemson on Feb. 18, Duke played as well as anybody in the country, winning at No. 2 Wake Forest and at tough Virginia among others. But as February drew to a close, it was easy to watch that team - small and not very deep - wear down. Duke lost two of three to end the regular season and again fizzled in postseason.
So momentum - which this team has in abundance - is important.
But it's not something to count on continuing into postseason.
WINNING THE TOURNAMENT?
Imagine the momentum the Blue Devils would take into the NCAA Tournament if Duke were to win the ACC Tournament this week in Greensboro.
The Devils would be 31-3, No. 2 in the nation and riding a 14-game winning streak.
They would also be the No. 2 seed in the entire NCAA Tournament.
But this is a very thin Duke team. Would expending the effort to win three games in three days take a toll on the physical condition of a team that is already banged up? Would it be better for Duke to do what Roy Williams did in 2009 - when he rested point guard Ty Lawson (nursing a sore toe) for the ACC Tournament? That move cost UNC the ACC championship, but Lawson was back in the lineup a week later and he guided the Heels to the 2009 national championship.
Should Mike Krzyzewski rest his hobbled stars and trade a chance at the ACC title for a better chance at the NCAA championship?
Or, if he won't do that,' should Duke fans hope for an early exit from Greensboro - maybe a Thursday night loss against N.C. State?
It should be noted that ACC Tournament performance is a good - but not infallible -- guide to NCAA performance.
Every one of Duke's four national championship teams played in the ACC championship game. Three won it - the one exception was 1991, when the Devils were routed by UNC in the title game.
Of Duke's 15 Final Four teams, 13 played in the ACC title game. Okay, Bubas' three Final Four teams had to win the ACC Tournament to get a bid. Foster's 1978 team had to win the title game after UNC was upset by Wake in the finals.
[Just to explain, in 1978, the NCAA took just two teams per conference - always the regular season champ and the tournament champ. If they were one and the same, the second-best conference team would get the second bid. Duke entered the 1978 tournament as the ACC's second-best team over the course of the regular season. If regular season champ UNC won the tournament, Duke would get its first bid since 1966. But when Wake Forest upset UNC in the semifinals, the Blue Devils were forced to beat Wake Forest in the finals to get a bid.]
Just take the 11 Final Four teams under Krzyzewski. Those teams didn't need to do well in the ACC Tournament to get a bid.
Five of those 11 Final Four teams won the ACC championship. Four more lost in the ACC title game. So nine of the 11 played the maximum number of games possible in the ACC Tournament. It didn't seem to hurt them. The two exceptions - 1990 and 1994 - both fell in the ACC semifinals, so they got one extra day's rest.
Playing in the ACC Tournament has never seemed to hurt Coach K's good teams.
In fact, every one of his 13 ACC championship teams has at least reached the Sweet 16.
Count his NCAA record in those 13 seasons - 46-10 (82.1 percent).
In the six seasons when he has lost in the ACC championship game - 17-5 (77.3 percent)
In the five seasons where Duke lost in the ACC semifinals - 12-5 (70.6 percent)
And in the six seasons where Duke lost before the semifinals (and still qualified for the NCAA Tournament) - 7-6 (53.8 percent).
Of course, that straight-line graph could merely suggest that teams good enough to succeed in the ACC Tournament, should also be good enough to succeed in NCAA play.
But it also indicates that success in the ACC Tournament equates to success in the NCAA Tournament and is not a detriment to success in that event.
DUKE'S CHANCES IN POSTSEASON
Duke will go to Greensboro with two goals in mind - secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and win the ACC championship.
I would suggest that of the two, the second is the most important. Of course, they are not mutually exclusive - in fact, if Duke does win the ACC title, the Devils are an absolute lock for a No. 1 NCAA seed (and, as I said earlier, the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament).
But I would still be focused on winning the ACC title.
It's about the banner. Coach K has said repeatedly that his focus is on winning championships. And the sad fact is that his program has not won a championship since the 2011 team beat UNC in the ACC Tournament finals to win the 2011 ACC title.
That was four years ago. That's an awfully long dry spell for a premier program.
The Devils have come close in recent years - Duke missed the ACC regular season title by one game in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Duke lost in the ACC championship game in 2014. Duke missed a regional championship by one game in 2013.
It's time to hang another banner.
It would also be a personal milestone for Coach K, who has 13 ACC championships on his resume - exactly the same as UNC's late Dean Smith,
Time to break the tie.
Duke's chances are very good.
It will start Thursday night (at 7 p.m.) with a game against either N.C. State or Pitt - most likely N.C. State, which not only has been playing better down the stretch, also needs a win or two in the ACC Tournament to solidify in NCAA resume.
Either way, an interesting fact about this Duke team will be put to the test. Very simply, in rematch games, Duke has improved its performance - in every case:
-- On Jan. 7, Duke had to come from behind late to beat Wake Forest 73-65. When the two teams met again in Durham, Duke rolled by 43 (94-51).
-- On Jan. 28, Duke lost a heartbreaker at Notre Dame, 77-73. In the rematch in Cameron, Duke absolutely dominated the Irish, winning by 30 (90-60).
-- On. Feb. 14, Duke again had to come from behind to beat Syracuse, 80-72, in the Dome. Two weeks later (Feb. 28), Duke had no trouble with the Orange in Cameron, winning 73-54.
-- On. Feb. 18, Duke had to stage a miraculous rally to force overtime against North Carolina. The Devils finally won a thriller, 92-90. In the rematch (Mar. 7) Duke had a somewhat easier time. It wasn't easy, but the Devils controlled the game down the stretch and won 84-77 in regulation.
That's a small sample size and it's warped a bit because in three of the four cases, the first game was on the road and the rematch was at home. Still, this has been a very good road team - and the fourth rematch was actually on the road.
It will be interesting to see whether the trend holds up Thursday night against either Pitt (which Duke beat 79-65 in Cameron) or N.C. State (which beat the Devils 87-75 Jan. 11 in Raleigh).
It should be noted that in recent years, N.C. State has been a tough opponent for Duke in Raleigh - winning five of the last nine meetings in the RBC Center. But Duke has won 20 of the last 21 meetings outside Raleigh, including ACC Tournament wins in 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2014.
N.C. State did upset Duke in the first round of the 2007 ACC Tournament in Tampa.
If Duke survives the semifinal round against the Wolfpack (or maybe the Panthers), a third matchup with Notre Dame would be most likely, although Miami remains an outside possibility (I'm going to discount the chance that either Wake Forest or Virginia Tech make it to Friday's semifinals)..
Another Duke-Notre Dame matchup would present an interesting dynamic, especially after the season split, capped by the blowout in Cameron.
I don't know how to read that.
The situation reminds me a bit of the N.C. State-Wake Forest quarterfinal game in 1983. The Wolfpack, bolstered by the return of injured guard Derek Whittenburg, blasted Wake Forest by 40 points in the regular season finale in Raleigh. Yet, the two teams were tied in the standings and matched in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 game in Greensboro.
Five days after the blowout in Raleigh, the Deacons bounced back and played State down to the wire. If I remember correctly, Lorenzo Charles made a late shot to give the Pack a heartstopping 71-70 victory. That was the moment when the Cardiac Pack was born.
I guess my point is that if Duke and Notre Dame do meet Friday night, I wouldn't be too confident based on the rout in Cameron. I would expect a thriller.
If it's Miami, I would go back to Duke's favorable performance in rematches.
Should Duke get to the championship game on Saturday night, I'd be shocked if the opponent was not Virginia. Yes, Louisville or North Carolina are good enough to get that far (but not the other teams in the bracket - Clemson, Florida State, Boston College or Georgia Tech).
I'll wait to handicap that one, although I would point out that if Duke gets that far, I do believe a No. 1 NCAA seed would be assured, no matter the outcome of the title game.
A loss in the semifinals or especially in the quarterfinals could put that in jeopardy, but that depends on how several other potential No. 1 seeds do in their postseason tournaments.
The future is unknowable, but entering the ACC Tournament, Duke has been the best team in the ACC over the last month-and that's not even debatable. Indeed, during Duke's 11-game winning streak, every other ACC team has lost at least twice, including Virginia.
That's no guarantee of success in Greensboro, but it's a lot better than going into the tournament on a losing streak.