clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is The Season Over?

It’s certainly not what anyone expected.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Miami
Feb 25, 2017; Coral Gables, FL, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Harry Giles (1) shoots over Miami Hurricanes forward Anthony Lawrence Jr. (3) during the first half at Watsco Center.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The 1960 Duke basketball team stumbled to the finish line as the regular season wound down in February.

The Blue Devils started their late slide with a 10-point loss at Maryland, lost by 19 points to Wake Forest at home, beat a truly dreadful Virginia team on the road, then closed out the regular season with a 25-point loss to UNC at Duke Indoor Stadium.

That dropped Duke’s record to 12-10 – a dismal 3-6 in February.

There was no reason to think rookie coach Vic Bubas could turn things around in the five days between that embarrassing home loss to the Tar Heels and the start of the ACC Tournament.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened.

Duke opened the ACC Tournament as the No. 4 seed and handily defeated No. 5 seed South Carolina in the tournament quarterfinals. The next night, the Blue Devils stunned top-seeded North Carolina in the semifinals, then followed that with another amazing upset, knocking off second-seeded (and regular season co-champion) Wake Forest in the finals to give Duke its first ACC title.

The Duke team went on to win two NCAA games – the first two NCAA Tournament wins in school history – before losing to NYU in the Elite Eight.

It was the most dramatic late-season turnaround in school history.

That trip down memory lane seems appropriate as Duke stumbles to the regular season finish line in 2017. The Blue Devils have lost two straight games on the road and are all but out of the regular season race. A team projected in preseason to dominate the ACC – and the nation – looks lost, struggling one night to play respectable defense … struggling the next time out to get its offense in sync.

It’s looking more and more like Duke is going to have to start ACC Tournament play on Wednesday, meaning that the Devils will need to win four games in four days to win the ACC championship (something that has never happened in league history). And unless the dramatic turnaround comes before Selection Sunday, it looks like Duke is going to start its national title quest as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed.

Is there any hope that this team can – like 1960 – suddenly put its game together and play to its potential? Or will this be remembered as one of the most disappointing seasons in modern Duke basketball history?

Well, recent Blue Devil history would seem to suggest that it’s over. Mike Krzyzewski might be the winningest NCAA coach in history, but he’s never made a deep run as less than a No. 3 seed. And that was only once (1990, when No. 3 seeded Duke lost to UNLV in the NCAA title game).

He’s had some nice runs with No. 2 seeds (including a national title in 1991), but he’s never taken a No. 4 or No. 5 (or worse) deep into the tournament.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. In fact, it happens quite frequently that an unheralded lower seed gets hot and makes a deep tournament run.

It happened last season.

Syracuse was 19-13 (9-10 in the ACC after losing its ACC Tournament opener to Pittsburgh) on Selection Sunday. The Orange were lucky to get a No. 10 seed,

Jim Boeheim’s team made the most of that opportunity, upsetting No. 7 seed Dayton in the first round. Then the tournament opened up for them – they got No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee in the second round and No. 11 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. They did have to upset No. 1 seed Virginia to earn a trip to the Final Four (where they lost to UNC in the semifinals).

How could a team that was so obviously in shambles as the NCAA Tournament opened, make it that far? Certainly good fortune had a lot to do with it (only having to face a No. 7, No. 15 and No. 11 to reach the Elite Eight), but it’s also evident that as the Orange progressed, they played better and more confidently.

And it’s not just Syracuse in 2016.

Kentucky in 2014 lost three of its last four in the regular season, then fell to Florida in the SEC Tournament. The Wildcats were unranked and seeded No. 8 in the NCAA Tournament when they reeled off five straight tournament wins to reach the NCAA championship game.

There, Kentucky ran into UConn, a team that was seeded No. 7 in the East. The 7th seeded Huskies beat the 8th seeded Wildcats to win the national championship.

That was the second time in four seasons that UConn made a dramatic late-season turnaround. In 2011, UConn entered the Big East Tournament tied for ninth in the league standings. The Huskies won five games in five days in Madison Square Garden to claim the league championship. That earned UConn a No. 3 seed, which the Huskies rode to the national championship.

Three No. 11 seeds have reached the Final Four (LSU in 1986; George Mason in 2007; and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011). The lowest seed to win it all was No. 8 Villanova in 1985.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has built his career on the kind of season that Duke is hoping to have this year. His teams often underachieve in the regular season, then salvage everything with a deep NCAA run. He has twice reached the Final Four as a No. 5 seed (2005 and 2010) and once as a No. 7 seed (2015).

North Carolina did it in 2000. The Tar Heel team that lost to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals looked like a sad team. UNC was 18-13 on Selection Sunday and was needed No. 8 in the South. The Heels knocked off No. 9 Missouri, No. 1 Stanford, No. 4 Tennessee and No. 7 Tulsa to reach the Final Four …. where UNC lost to No. 5 seed Florida.

Virginia (No. 7 seed) in 1984; Penn (No. 9) in 1979) and Butler (No. 8 in 2011) all reached the Final Four.

It happens. It happens a lot.

It just hasn’t happened to Duke under Krzyzewski.


Why hasn’t it ever happened for Krzyzewski?

Well, the easy answer is that he hasn’t had many chances.

He’s taken Duke to the NCAA Tournament 32 times. But 13 if those times have been as a No. 1 seed. Nine more have been as a No. 2 seed. Six have been as a No. 3 seed.

That leaves four trips as worse than a No. 3 seed:

-- In 1987, Duke was a No. 5 seed. The Blue Devils beat No. 12 Texas A&M and No. 4 seed Xavier to reach the Sweet 16, where they lost to eventual national champion Indiana in a close game.

-- In 1996, an injury riddled Duke team (two walk-ons from the soccer team played major roles) was a No. 8 seed. That Blue Devil team lost to Eastern Michigan in the opening game.

-- In 2007, Duke was a No. 6 seed, losing on a last-second shot to VCU in the opening game.

-- In 2016, Duke was a No. 4 seed. The Devils beat UNC Wilmington and Yale to reach the Sweet 16 before losing to Oregon in the regional semifinals.

That’s it – four chances to make a deep run as worse than a No. 3 seed.

That’s obviously too small a sample size to take too seriously.

There have been instances where Duke stumbled down the stretch in the regular season or ACC Tournament and seemed to enter NCAA play in a slump.

The most notable was the 1990 team, which lost four of six pre-NCAA games. The last was a humiliating loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament semifinals. Afterwards, senior guard Phil Henderson blasted his teammates as “a bunch of babies.”

That team played for the national championship barely three weeks later.

The 1989 team also slumped as the regular season ended, losing back to back games to Arizona and Clemson, then losing a heartbreaker to UNC in the ACC Tournament finals.

That team reached the Final Four before an injury to Robert Brickey and foul trouble by freshman Christian Laettner cost the team in the semifinals against Seton Hall.

The 1991 team lost twice in late February, then was blown out by UNC in the ACC title game by North Carolina (96-74).

That team won Duke’s first national title.

The 1994 team finished badly, losing at home to North Carolina, then falling to Virginia in the ACC semifinals.

That team finished up missing the NCAA title by the length of Antonio Lang’s fingernails.

It’s fair to wonder, however, whether the struggles of any of these teams matches what the 2017 Blue Devils are going through.

We all know the reason for this team’s struggles – the succession of injuries which have delayed the development of several freshmen and have disrupted the cohesion of this team. Every time Duke appears poised for takeoff, another key player goes down – most notably Amile Jefferson against Boston College on Jan. 7 (an injury that still hampers him) and Grayson Allen against Clemson on Feb. 11.

That latter setback really changed the trajectory of this team.

Duke was on a wonderful role, coming off its best performance of the season – a victory over North Carolina that showcased spectacular play by both teams. The best of the best that night was Allen – 25 points (7-of-12 3-pointers), three rebounds, three assists.

It was the fourth strong game in a row for the junior guard, coinciding with the team’s four-game winning streak. In that span, Allen averaged 21.5 points, a team-high 3.8 assists and he shot 48.8 from 3-point range (20 of 41). He was playing at the level that earned him preseason All-America honors.

Then Allen rolled his ankle early in the next game against Clemson.

He toughed it out and played 32 minutes against the Tigers, but he was not the same player. Allen struggled with his shot on his bad ankle. Over the next four games, he averaged 8.0 points a game and shot 23.0 percent from the field.

Finally, Krzyzewski had enough and rested his injured star at Miami.

That game showed just how important Allen is to the Duke offense. Without him, the Hurricanes were able to focus their defensive pressure on Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum. Duke’s offense sputtered and died.

Will it be any different Tuesday night when No. 18 Florida State -- a team that beat Duke (without Jefferson) 88-72 in Tallahassee visits Cameron?

Will Allen be able to play? Will Jefferson still be hobbled?

More importantly, will either or both be able to regain their health in time for Duke to salvage its season in the NCAA Tournament?

At full speed, with all its weapons functioning – does anybody else in college basketball have a better offensive threesome that Allen, Kennard and Tatum? – Duke can play and beat anybody.

Normally, at this time of year as we enter the last week of the regular season, we worry about positioning for postseason. Can Duke earn the double-bye for the ACC Tournament? Can the Devils be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?

Those things are important – they make postseason success easier.

But they are not VITAL to postseason success.

Over the next week, Duke’s most important task is to get healthy and to regain the momentum it had barely a week ago. It would be nice if it happened this week and Duke could go into postseason on a surge. It would be fine if it happened next week in Brooklyn.

But if it’s going to happen, it must happen when the NCAA Tournament opens the next week.

Coach K has not had many chances to win surprise us with an unexpected postseason run.

He’ll have that chance this season.

If you're going to shop Amazon, please start here and help DBR and while you're there check out Al Featherston’s book True Blue | Drop us a line