It seems a yearly ritual for Duke fans come January: the Blue Devils will inevitably be upset by a lesser opponent in ACC play, and panic will ensue.
After these events it is always important to maintain a sense of context. Historically, Duke’s most successful teams have all had similar stumbles to the loss at Clemson Tuesday night. The 2015 National Champions lost three games in January, starting with a road loss to a middling N.C. State squad. The 2010 National Champions also lost three January games, coincidentally including another road loss against an average Wolfpack squad. Even last year’s Blue Devils overcame a disappointing January loss, this time to Syracuse at home, to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
With young teams, pitfalls in the dog-days of the season, especially on the road in conference play, are inevitable. The loss to Clemson continued this trend. But Duke is still the same team now as it was prior to the upset: the favorite in the ACC and one of the top-tier teams in the country. The fact that it took a “trap” road game (with the hyped matchup against Louisville upcoming on Saturday) against a team riding a wave of momentum (see: The Streak), not to mention a disastrous combination of missed layups, missed free-throws, foul trouble, and injuries, to beat these Blue Devils could be seen as a testament to how good this team can be.
And lest we forget, this year’s Duke squad remains in prime position to accomplish its number one goal: positioning themselves well in March. Even after the loss, Duke finds themselves No. 6 in the NCAA’s NET Rankings, with an arguably superior resume to many of the teams competing with them for a top seed come Selection Sunday.
Looking at the Team Sheets, which contains the exact data that the committee will evaluate in March, it’s clear that Duke’s top-tier wins match up with any in the country. The Blue Devils’ victories against Kansas on a neutral site, at Michigan State, and at Virginia Tech are not just Q1 wins, but “top-half” Q1 wins (a distinction that is made apparent on the Team Sheets but is often overlooked in Bracketology-style discussions. When compared to the eight top competitors for a No. 1 seed according to Bracket Matrix, only Baylor can claim more wins of that caliber.
The computers also clearly favor the Blue Devils. While the available numbers are from before the Clemson loss, Duke found themselves No. 1 in four of the five computer metrics included on the Team Sheets, and it’s unlikely that a lone loss will shift this too much (computers are much less likely than humans to overreact to an outlier!). The remaining contenders for No. 1 seeds all have flaws in their computer resumes, perhaps with the exception of Kansas, which finds itself in the Top 3 in four of five metrics.
Then there are the practicalities at play when it comes to the top line. Gonzaga, barring an epic conference collapse, has likely secured a top-seed given their challenging non-conference slate at the fact that a stronger WCC provides them multiple potential opportunities for further Q1 wins. In all likelihood the Big 12 will claim a top seed, with Baylor beginning separate itself from Kansas after drubbing the Jayhawks in the Phog. So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that two top seeds remain “open”.
Can San Diego State sneak in and grab one? It would likely take an undefeated season for them to do so, with only three Q1 wins (only one of which is a “top-half” win, at BYU) and no upcoming chances to improve that portion of their resume. In fact, only three of the Aztecs’ remaining games are projected even as Q2 opportunities. Should they falter even once, the Aztecs will likely forfeit their chance at the top line (and could cause an interesting scenario in which two mid-majors, Gonzaga and San Diego State, claim top seeds in the West region). Probability and recent history says it’s more likely than not that the Aztecs won’t be undefeated come March.
Auburn also finds itself undefeated, but thanks largely to an especially easy non-conference slate: the Tigers have only one Q1 win, against St. Louis on a neutral site. Given this handicap, it’d likely take a clear-cut claim to SEC superiority, which would likely need to include at least one victory over Kentucky, for Auburn’s resume to remain top-tier.
Butler has a legit claim to a top-seed at the moment, especially if they can succeed in a loaded Big East. But while the Big East is one of the top conferences in the country this year, there does not appear to be another team with a “No. 1 seed” resume at the moment: after Butler, the next highest rated team in the NET is Seton Hall at 18. If Butler falters, it would take a dominating conference season from another Big East squad to jump to the top-line. If Butler continues its success and claims the Big East, it certainly won’t be without another few losses, in which case Duke would likely have superior “top-tier” wins.
Who remains amongst the Top 8 contenders? Two Big 12 schools, Kansas and West Virginia. It seems improbable that two Big 12 schools would claim top seeds this season, especially considering the non-stellar non-conference resumes of the Jayhawks and Mountaineers. There’s also the fact that Duke beat Kansas on a neutral site this year, which would likely come into play were the Blue Devils and Jayhawks compared by the committee.
Notably absent from this analysis are any teams from the consensus “best conference” this season, the Big Ten. But the conference appears hell-bent on self-destruction, with no team showing an ability to separate themselves from the pack and win on the road. The team most likely to challenge for a No. 1 seed, Michigan State, had a subpar non-conference and also lost to Duke. While a Big Ten team could emerge from the fray to challenge for the top-line, it seems unlikely that would be at the Blue Devils’ expense.
All that analysis leads to one clear conclusion: despite the Clemson loss, Duke still controls its own destiny when it comes to tournament seeding. As it stands, the Blue Devils don’t need to do much scoreboard watching, but must merely take care of business and win the ACC. Do that, and solid positioning in March Madness should come, despite any prognostications of a falling sky after another January upset.