It may be the understatement of the season to say that the ACC is having a “down” year.
Playing in historically one of the top conferences in college basketball, Duke typically has multiple opportunities for marquee victories during ACC play. Yet this season, the No. 2 Blue Devils are the lone ACC team ranked in the AP Top 25 (no team even falls under the “others receiving votes” category). Duke is ranked No. 9 in the NET rankings, with no other ACC team higher than No. 41.
Long story short: the Blue Devils have very little margin for error in their pursuit for a No. 1 seed come March.
How bad is it? With no Top 30 teams in the conference, Duke has no projected opportunity to record an all-important Quadrant 1 victory at home for the remainder of the season. Duke’s victory over NET No. 41 Virginia Tech is actually the most likely to become a Q1 win, but with the Hokies looking lost (recently falling at home to NC State) that looks unlikely.
Even the opportunities for marquee road victories will be limited: as of today, the Blue Devils have only three such opportunities on their schedule (at North Carolina, Wake Forest, and Virginia), with another if the COVID-postponed matchup at Clemson is rescheduled. Meanwhile, six of Duke’s remaining games would currently fall in Q3 territory, and Monday’s victory over Georgia Tech currently sits in Q4.
What does all this mean for Duke come Selection Sunday? If Duke secures a No. 1 seed it’ll be on the basis of their top-tier victories; very few teams will be able to match neutral site victories against Gonzaga and Kentucky atop their resumes. But otherwise, comparing Duke to many other contenders for No. 1 seeds (according to Bracket Matrix, 12 of the top 16 consensus seeds come from the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, or SEC) will be comparing apples and oranges.
Consider, for example, current NET No. 1 Baylor: the undefeated Bears are currently 3-0 in their Q1 games, but have 12 additional games currently projected to fall into that category (including four at home). Another top contender for a No. 1 seed, Kansas, will benefit from many of those same games in the Big 12. Even in a weaker Pac-12, NET No. 2 Arizona has five projected upcoming Q1 games (assuming two are rescheduled), including two home opportunities against top-tier foes UCLA and USC.
Then there’s this concerning reality: Duke’s non-conference schedule was unusually top-heavy this season, perhaps because COVID motivated the team not to participate in a traditional tournament, but instead create its own multi-team event. In fact, all but one of Duke’s non-conference games outside of the Q1 matchups against Gonzaga, Kentucky, and Ohio State rank as Q4 games, essentially meaningless victories on a resume aspiring for a top seed.
In past seasons, Duke has been able to absorb one or two “bad losses” thanks to the reputation and/or depth of the ACC. But the 2021-2022 ACC profiles closer to a high mid-major (the Mountain West has more teams currently ranked in the NET Top 75!) than the conference that prides itself on sitting atop the college basketball landscape. Unless teams like North Carolina, Wake Forest, and Virginia Tech separate themselves from the pack and become a clear “second-tier” in the conference, Duke may only be able a couple total additional losses if it wants to be atop a bracket in March.