clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Duke’s Season: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly Part I

Lots to look back at and learn from

On the set of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Clint Eastwood on the set of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Photo by United Artists/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Normally, when Duke ends its season with a win, a banner is going up soon.

But normal boarded the train and left the station a little more than a year ago. Duke’s 2021 two-game winning streak was terminated not by an opponent but rather by the pandemic that ended the 2020 season, also with Duke on a two-game winning streak.

Of course, Duke was going to the 2020 NCAA Tournament before everything shut down. The only questions were seed and location.

This year Duke needed to turn that two-game winning streak into a three, maybe four, maybe even five-game winning streak to keep playing.

Duke has had unusual basketball seasons before Covid-19 made an appearance. The fall-out from Mike Krzyzewski’s back surgery led him to take off the second half of the 1994-’95 season. Duke was 9-3 when he took that medical leave of absence and ended its season 13-18, 4-15 under over-matched interim coach Pete Gaudet.

Shortly before the first practice of the 1973-’74 season head coach Bucky Waters stepped down when his request for a contract extension was denied by AD Carl James. Assistant coach Neil McGeachy stepped into the void on short notice and got a 10-16 disaster for his trouble in his only season at the Duke helm.

Duke went through a 1950 season in which head coach Gerry Gerard was dying of cancer. That team went 15-15 (assistant Red Auerbach was briefly an assistant and was expected to become the new coach but left because he said, he didn’t want to get it that way).

The closest analog might be the four seasons contested during World War II. Most male students at Duke were with Navy officers-in-training through the V-12 program or ministerial students. Duke’s schedule included Fort Bragg, Carolina Pre-Flight, Camp Butner and other military facilities. Attendance was limited not by scandal but rather by gas rationing. One home game against Wake Forest had a reported attendance of 100.

But none of these seasons prepared Duke fans for what transpired in 2020-’21, a season with at least six canceled games, a largely quarantined team, an empty Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The what-ifs are staggering. What if Duke didn’t cancel those three non-conference games, thus depriving a young team of three potential opportunities to gain experience, cohesion and confidence? What if Duke had allowed a modest crowd of socially-distanced Crazies? What if Mike Krzyzewski didn’t have a Covid-related family crisis in midseason? What if Jalen Johnson had been what we thought he was going to be?

And mostly, what if Duke had been able to square off against Florida State in the quarterfinal round of the ACC Tournament?

Then again a Duke roster full of top-50 recruits posted losses to Pittsburgh, Miami and Notre Dame teams that Duke should have been able to handle.

The opportunities were there.

Duke missed the Big Dance on merit. Too many bad losses.

So, the season ends at 13-11, a spectacularly unsatisfying end but an end as final as all ends are.


With way more free time than usual this time of year, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to analyze the season past, the seasons to come, and the future of the program.

But for now, I’m going to take a look at where this season fits into the history of the program, traditions and streaks that were interrupted and ones that were maintained.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first.


This is the one that is getting the most attention and for good reason. March Madness without Duke almost defies comprehension.

Some context. Patrick Tapé is the oldest player on the 2021 Duke roster. He was born June 8, 1998. Duke last missed the NCAA Tournament in 1995. Assistant coach Jon Scheyer was seven when Duke last stayed home.

Keep in mind that Krzyzewski didn’t coach that team for its final 19 games. To find the last time Mike Krzyzewski missed the NCAA Tournament, we have to go back to 1983.


After missing the NCAAS in 1995 with a 13-18 record, Duke made it back in 1996. That team was 18-10 going into its regular-season finale. But Duke lost that game to North Carolina. Hampered by a cluster of injuries, Duke lost its ACC Tournament opener to Maryland and its NCAA Tournament opener to Eastern Michigan, to finish 18-13.

Since then 20 wins has been the floor for Duke basketball. In fact Duke won 30 or more games 12 times from 1998 through 2019. The 2020 team won 25 without the benefit of any post-season play. No Duke team since 1996 really came close to missing 20 wins. The 2007 team ended 22-11 but reached 20 wins on February 18, at 20-7.


Okay, having all those games canceled made it harder to get to 20 wins. No question. But Duke’s 11 losses were the first time Duke has lost more than nine games since losing 11 in 2016. Prior to that the 2007 team lost 11. From 1997 through 2020 those were the only Duke teams to lose more than nine games. But those teams won 22 games in 2007 and 25 in 2016. Assuming the 2021 Duke team wouldn’t have gone on to win the NCAA title, the next loss would have been the 12th, the most since 1996.


Duke did get to play North Carolina twice in the regular season, losing a close game at Cameron and a not-so-close game at the Smith Center.

Duke also lost both regular-season games to the Tar Heels in 2019 but got Zion Williamson back and beat them in the ACC Tournament. Had Duke defeated Florida State last week, North Carolina would have been next on the menu.

The operative words being “would have been.”

We have to go back to 2009 to find the last time Duke did not post a win against North Carolina in a season. That was the Tyler Hansbrough-Ty Lawson era in which the rivalry skewed light blue in ways we haven’t seen since. In fact, from 2010 through 2020 Duke went 17-9 against Carolina.


Duke runs a star-friendly system. From 2011 through 2020, Duke had five ACC Players of the Year, including Marvin Bagley in 2018, Zion Williamson in 2019 and Tre Jones in 2020.

Matt Hurt got three of the 75 votes cast this season for that award.

Same deal with ACC Freshman of the Year, an award Duke won seven times from 2012 through 2020. Bagley, Williamson and Vernon Carey won the three most recent. D.J. Steward received six votes this season.

Note that the last Duke player to win the ACC Freshman of the Year and come back was Kyle Singler in 2008.

Further note that Jayson Tatum was not named ACC FOY in 2017. NC State’s Dennis Smith did, out-polling Tatum 36 votes to 8.


There are lots of All-American teams and Hurt might end up making one. But AP is the gold standard here. And I’m not counting honorable mention.

Which makes this the first season since 2012 that Duke has not had an AP All-America selection.

That group consists of Mason Plumlee, 2nd team,2013; Jabari Parker, 1st team 2014; Jahlil Okafor, 1st team, 2015; Grayson Allen, 3rd team, 2016; Luke Kennard, 2nd team, 2017; Marvin Bagley, 1st team, 2018; Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, 1st team, 2019; Vernon Carey, 2nd team and Tre Jones, 3rd team, 2020.

That’s 10 AP All-Americans in an eight-year span.

Most schools haven’t had 10 AP All-Americans in their entire history.

Note that Gerald Henderson (2009, 3rd team), Scheyer (2010, 2nd team) and Nolan Smith (1st team, 2011) also made the list.

Austin Rivers was named to the NABC All-America team in 2012. But not AP.

Which means that 2021 was the second time in the last 13 seasons Duke has not had an AP All-American.


Okay, this is a weird one and definitely a product of Covid-19. Duke was scheduled to play Florida State once in the regular season. That game was canceled. Duke played its way into an ACC Tournament quarterfinal match against FSU but that game was canceled.

Meaning Duke and Florida State did not meet this season.

Has Duke ever before failed to play an ACC opponent in a season?

Actually, yes. The ACC was formed in May, 1953, with seven teams. Virginia became the eighth team that summer. Schedules were a bit haphazard that first year. In fact, Virginia only played five ACC regular-season games.

But two of those were against Duke.

So, Virginia isn’t the answer.

Clemson is. The Tigers played nine ACC games that season and lost them all. But none of them were against Duke.

You might ask about 1967, when Duke and South Carolina did not play in the regular season. The ACC ruled South Carolina sophomore Mike Grosso ineligible for impermissible benefits and South Carolina coach Frank McGuire blamed Duke AD Eddie Cameron for blowing the whistle. It became so heated that Duke opted out of their two games against the Gamecocks, with the ACC’s permission. But they met in the ACC Tournament, with Duke winning.

Okay, enough of that depressing stuff. Duke did keep alive some positive streaks. We’ll look at those in the next installment.