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Expectations For No. 1

The odds of winning a national title are against everyone, but Duke’s are better than most.

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Georgia Tech v Duke
DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 04: Charles Mitchell #0 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defends a drive by Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 4, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

​The first Associated Press college basketball poll was released on Jan. 28, 1949.

​St. Louis, the original No. 1 team, led by big man “Easy Ed” McCauley (who would later be the centerpiece in a trade that would bring the draft rights to Bill Russell to the Celtics), was just ahead of Kentucky and Western Kentucky in the rankings. There were no future ACC teams included, although Everett Case’s N.C. State Wolfpack would jump in at No. 15 a week later.

​That first poll was not a preseason poll. The season, which started on or about Dec. 1 in those days, was already almost two months old.

​Polls would come out earlier in the succeeding years, but not quite at the start of the season. The first time Duke ever showed up in a debut poll was Dec. 11, 1951 after the Blue Devils – led by Dick Groat and Bernie Janicki – had already beaten Temple (led by 1951 national player of the year Bill Mlkvy – the Owl without a Vowel), Hanes Hoisery (a powerful semipro club), UNC and Bradley (a 32-win team in 1951).

​There wouldn’t be an official preseason AP poll until the 1961-62 season.

​The choice that year was interesting in hindsight. The voters picked Ohio State over Cincinnati.

​The Buckeyes had won the 1960 national title with a sophomore dominated team – dominated largely by the great Jerry Lucas (and no matter his good-but-not-great NBA career, he was the greatest college player of his era), who was supported by classmates John Havlicek (who would not find true greatness until he got to the NBA), Larry Siegfred and Mel Nowell. That team returned intact in 1960-61 and started 27-0 … before losing to Cincinnati in the national title game.

​That Cincinnati team was a bunch of no names, who took over after the graduation of the great Oscar Robertson and took the Bearcats to places the Big O could never reach. Tom Thacker, Paul Hogue and Tony Yates were the core of that squad, although senior big man Bob Weisenhahn was replaced going into the ’61-’62 season by sophomore George Wilson.

​The AP voters obviously thought Cincinnati’s title game victory was a fluke.

​It wasn’t – the same two teams met in the 1962 title game and the Bearcats dominated the game – leading by 18 twice in the second half and winning by 12.

​You can’t blame the AP preseason voters too much. They did get the right two teams in the title game, only in the wrong order. And, amazingly, the preseason No. 3 team – Wake Forest – won the consolation game over UCLA (unranked in the preseason poll) to finish third.​I bring this up because Duke is going to be the No. 1 team in the 2016-17 AP preseason poll. No need to get into the reasons – my readers know the rare combination of returning talent and incoming freshman that will make the Blue Devils so promising – and the clearcut preseason choice by most voters over defending champion Villanova, Kansas, Kentucky and Oregon.

​Instead, I was wondering, what kind of expectations should that create?

​Understand that Duke basketball fans are spoiled by three decades of unparalleled success (no, that’s not quite true … include John Wooden’s 1962-75 run in any three decade period and UCLA had the greatest three-decade run … but that’s the only one better than K’s long dominance).

​In almost any other context, last season’s Duke record – 25 wins, a Sweet 16, a final AP ranking of No. 19 – would have been a spectacular success. Heck, at Virginia Tech or Boston College, it would have been one of the great seasons in their history. For Duke – under Coach K – it was a less than average season. I won’t call it a disappointment, considering the injury to Amile Jefferson that created so many problems for a young, inexperienced team, but it was less than Duke fans had hoped for going into the season.

​Obviously, the hopes for this season are even higher. Many fans expect a sixth national championship. Would a season that ended in the Final Four be a failure? How about a year that ended in the Sweet 16?

​Obviously, a couple of serious injuries could change things (as happened last year), but with reasonable health, what should the expectations for this team be?

​Looking at the records, I found these facts to guide us. There have been 55 preseason polls:

​-- The voters have picked the eventual national champion 14 times. That means that the preseason No. 1 team has won 25.5 percent of the time. That number is skewed a bit because the voters hit six of seven years they picked UCLA No. 1 preseason during Wooden’s dominant run. Since N.C. State (No. 2 in preseason) upset the Bruins in 1974, just eight of 43 No. 1 teams have won it all – 18.6 percent.

​So call it either way you like, the historical odds are either 1-in-4 or 1-in-5 of Duke winning it all.

​-- Nine more preseason No. 1 teams lost in the NCAA championship game. That means that 23 of 55 No. 1 teams reached the championship game – 41.8 percent. And six lost in the semifinals (most recently Kentucky in 2015). That means that 29 of 55 preseason No. 1’s have reached the title game – 52.7 percent.

​So historically, the odds are better than 50 percent that Duke will at least reach the Final Four.

​BTW: 43 preseason No. 1 teams at least reached the Sweet 16 – 78.1 percent.

​-- Three missed the NCAA Tournament entirely, but all those happened in the early days, before the NCAA Tournament expanded. Incidentally, two of those three came from the ACC – South Carolina in 1970 and N.C. State in 1975. The other was UCLA in 1966. In the current NCAA landscape, all three of those teams would have made the field.

​What’s the worst NCAA showing by a preseason No. 1? Several have lost in the second round (the round of 32) – including Duke in 1979. But Kansas in 2005 has the edge – Bill Self’s preseason No. 1 Jayhawks lost in the first round (round of 64) to Bucknell.

​-- 22 of 55 preseason No. 1’s almost finished the season ranked No. 1. That’s almost the same number as have won the title, but it’s a very different set of teams.

​-- Two preseason No. 1 teams finished unranked – UCLA in 1966 (which also missed the tournament) and Kentucky in 2014 – when the Wildcats got hot in the tournament and actually reached the title game.


​Duke has been the preseason No. 1 team on six previous occasions.

​Just one of those teams won the NCAA championship (1992), although a second preseason No. 1 Duke team reached the title game (1999) and a third (1989) reached the semifinals before losing.

​Here is a summary of Duke’s previous preseason No. 1 teams:

​1979 – Returning all five starters from the 1978 NCAA runner-ups, Duke stumbled with back to back losses in the Holiday Festival un New York (blowing big leads to Ohio State and St. John’s), but rallied to win a share of the ACC title and reach the ACC Tournament title game. But point guard Bob Bender was lost before that game with appendicitis and Duke lost to UNC, finishing No. 11 in the final poll (falling from No. 6 the previous week). Without Bender or starting forward Kenny Dennard (injured in a late-night pickup game) and with All-American center Mike Gminski suffering from food poisoning, Duke lost its first NCAA game (actually a second-round game … they had a bye) on Black Sunday in Raleigh – losing a heartbreaker to St. John’s.

​1989 – The return of ACC player of the year Danny Ferry and starters Robert Brickey and Quin Snyder, along with the addition of freshman Christian Laettner made Duke the preseason No. 1 team. The Devils opened with 13 straight wins, then lost three in a row to UNC, Wake and NC State. Duke finished No. 9 in the final AP poll after losing a heartbreaker to UNC in the ACC title game. But the Blue Devils got on a roll in the NCAA Tournament, winning four straight, including a victory over preseason tourney favorite Georgetown in the East title game. But after taking an early lead on Seton Hall in the NCAA semifinals, an injury to Brickey and foul trouble for Laettner doomed Duke to a Final Four loss.

​1992 – Duke returned four starters off its 1991 NCAA championship team, including the Big 3 of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. The Devils remained No. 1 all season, despite a series of injuries and back-to-back losses to UNC and Wake. Duke won the ACC regular season and tournament titles, then completed the run with six NCAA wins to claim a second straight NCAA title.

​1999 – Duke returned the most talented roster in the country and played like it all season, dominating the ACC as no team has before or since. A close early season loss to Cincinnati in Alaska (when several players were struggling with the flu) was the team’s only blemish as it took a 37-1 record into the title game with UConn. That didn’t end well, despite a strong game by senior Trajan Landon, who carried the team – but failed to convert on the key possession in the final seconds.

​2002 – The return of Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Chris Duhonoff Duke’s 2001 national champs made Duke the preseason No. 1 pick, but the loss of national player of the year Shane Battier left a big hole. Still, Duke won 23 of its first 24 games and never dropped lower than No. 3 in the rankings, despite road losses to Maryland and Virginia late in the season. Duke rallied to win the ACC Tournament and regain the No. 1 ranking in the final AP poll. But the Devils blew a big lead to Indiana in the Sweet 16 in hostile Lexington, Ky., and lost the game on a controversial no-call on the game’s final play.

​2006 -- J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams provided the outside/inside power for Duke’s veteran team. Duke won 27 of its first 28 before inexplicably losing its last two regular season games. The Devils rallied to win the ACC Tournament and regain their No. 1 ranking going into the NCAA Tournament. But a Sweet 16 loss to LSU in Atlanta ended the season on a sour note,

​For what it’s worth, Duke’s other four national champions started out ranked No. 6 (1991), No. 2 (2001), No. 9 (2010) and No. 4 (2015).


​Okay, I went through all that so we can talk rationally about expectations.

​What are fair expectations for this Duke team?

​As mentioned, the odds are 1-in-4 or -5 that Duke will win the national title and better than 50 percent that the Devils will at least reach the Final Four.

​Of course, those odds may be skewed a bit because not every year is the same. There is not always a clearcut preseason No. 1. There wasn’t a year ago, when UNC, Kansas and Kentucky all earned significant preseason No. 1 mention. There was two years ago, when a Kentucky team that seemed to combine the same kind of veteran and freshman talent that this Duke team possesses opened the season as the overwhelming No. 1 pick.

​Of course, that Wildcat team ran through the season unbeaten before losing to Wisconsin in the national semifinals … opening the door for Duke to claim its fifth national title.

​Duke is going to be the same kind of overwhelming favorite going into the 2016-17 season. I think the historical odds are interesting, but not definitive. The one lesson I would take from history is that no team is a favorite against the field. In a single-elimination tournament, even the best team in the country is an underdog to win it all.

​So what do I expect for the coming season?

​Allow me to lay out a possible scenario for how this year should play out:

​Duke will start strong. Most Coach K teams – especially those with a strong veteran base – open strong.

​Even so, the Blue Devils will be at risk in their third game – Nov. 15 vs. Kansas in Madison Square Garden.

​The Jayhawks are a top five team with a talented, experienced backcourt. That counts for a lot. We still don’t know if Duke freshman Harry Giles will be at 100 percent or will be fully integrated into the rotation at that point.

​Don’t get me wrong, I’m not picking Duke to lose …. But I wouldn’t be shocked or especially disappointed if it happened.

​Aside from that game, I would be surprised by another non-conference loss.

​I know Michigan State will be a formidable opponent when the Spartans visit Cameron Nov. 29 for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. But I’m confident of a win in that one for several reasons:

​(1) Tom Izzo is the exact opposite of Coach K in that his teams – even his best teams – rarely start strong. They finish strong, but often struggle in November and December. And while this will be one of his most talented Michigan State teams, it will also be one of his youngest.

​(2) Mike Krzyzewski absolutely OWNS Tom Izzo. Coach K is 9-1 in head-to-head matchups. Some of that is the contrast in early season performances (6-0 in November and December), but he’s also 3-1 in NCAA play (with all three wins coming in the Final Four).

​(3) It is in Cameron. Duke hasn’t not lost a non-conference home game since 2000 – that’s 16 years since St. John’s edged the Devils. I know anything is possible, but I don’t expect that streak to end this season.

​I don’t expect any problem from Penn State, then either Cincinnati or Rhode Island in between Kansas and Michigan State. I don’t expect Florida to be much of a threat in Madison Square Garden in December. The UNLV team that Duke will meet in Las Vegas is in shambles and shouldn’t offer a threat, even with the hometown (not quite homecourt) edge.

​Overall, I’m confident that Duke will be 13-0 – or at worst 12-1 – when the Devils finish the non-conference portion of their schedule against Elon in Greensboro before Christmas.

​ACC play starts on New Year’s Eve with a trip to Blacksburg to take on a tough, experienced and well coached team from Virginia Tech. Although if sophomore big man Kerry Blackshear is out (he’s struggling with a leg injury), that could leave the Hokies extremely vulnerable in the post.

​I am not going to walk through the schedule, picking every game – that’s impossible this far in advance, but allow me to make some general observations.

​-- As consistently as K’s teams start strong, they almost as consistently hit a little bump in the road in January. The 2015 national champs lost back-to-back games to N.C. State and Miami (in Cameron!). The 2010 national champs lost to Georgia Tech and N.C. State in a 12-day span in early January. Even the veteran 2013 team, that played so well in November and December (15-0 to start), lost two of three games in mid-January (although that “slump” was in large part due to the injury to Ryan Kelly).

​Still, it often seems like freshmen hit some kind of wall in mid-January. I wouldn’t expect this team to slump in mid-January (barring catastrophic injuries), but I do expect a loss or two – especially since …

​-- Duke will be vulnerable on the road in the ACC … in every game. The Blue Devils have to go on the road nine times and unfortunately, they don’t get a trip to Boston College or Georgia Tech – the only two ACC venues where they could be sure of victory. The weakest road opponent is Wake Forest and the Deacons have a long history of giving Duke trouble in Winston-Salem.

​I expect this Duke team to have a good road record … but for me, that would be something like 7-2. The great ’86 team was 6-2 on the road in the ACC. The even greater ’92 team was 6-2 on the road – although to be fair, both the ’99 and ‘2001 teams were perfect on the road in the ACC … so was the far less successful 2012 team. So 9-0 is possible.

​-- I think there is a good chance that Duke can go unbeaten at home. That’s something that most of the great Duke teams – 1986, 1992, 1999, 2010 – have accomplished. True, the 2015 national champs lost at home to Miami and the 2001 champs lost twice at home (to UNC and Maryland), so a loss is possible.

​But just I expect a loss or two on the road in the ACC, I also expect a perfect ACC record at home. That would be a great outcome against one of the strongest, deepest ACC’s in memory.

​That projected 16-2 ACC record would almost certainly be good enough to win the ACC regular season title – something Duke hasn’t done outright since 2006 (the Devils tied Maryland for the title in 2010).

​And, while I know that many Duke fans don’t care about the ACC title, I do – it is the official championship of the league and the Devils haven’t won it since 2011. Duke leads rival UNC 19-18 in ACC championships after the Tar Heels won last season – it would be nice to add to the cushion again. And Coach K remains tied with ex-UNC coach Dean Smith with 13 titles each. It would be nice to break that tie.

​Of course, even I understand that’s a secondary consideration to what comes next. The success or failure of this Duke team will turn on what it does in the NCAA Tournament.

​Again we get to expectations – I EXPECT this team to get to the Final Four.

​Fall short of that and (again barring some catastrophic excuse) and I will be disappointed – no matter what happened in the regular season.

​I certainly hope for two wins at the Final Four and another national championship. I think Duke will be the best team in the country, but I know that the best team does not always win.

​I’m trying to keep expectations manageable. I don’t want to be one of those Kentucky idiots who got 40-0 tattoos in 2015.

​Believe me, I’d love to see that kind of greatness from this team … and I believe it’s possible.​ But I’m not arrogant enough to expect it.

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