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Is Duke Fatally Flawed or Unusually Unlucky?

The reality likely falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Duke
Virginia Cavaliers guard Reece Beekman(2) shoots a three-pointer over Duke Blue Devils forward Paolo Banchero (5) during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Cavaliers won 69-68. 
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

What says more about a team: a blowout loss to a decent foe, or falling in the final seconds to a mediocre one? Your answer likely explains how emotionally hungover you are following Duke’s loss to Virginia last night.

There’s no sugarcoating it: this was a bad loss, exacerbated by the whiplash Blue Devils fans are understandably experiencing after the high of a dominating performance in Chapel Hill on Saturday. If a 20 point victory against the Tar Heels showed Duke’s ceiling, then the letdown performance against the Cavaliers may have shown its floor.

But how low is that floor?

Virginia is undeniably a mediocre team this year at best. They’re well off the NCAA Tournament bubble, lost to Navy and James Madison in the non-conference, and have lost by double digits on the road to both North Carolina and North Carolina State. But they’re still coached by Tony Bennett, have a senior point guard who was a key part of a National Championship team, and are 9-5 in the ACC. Calling them “bad” is a gross oversimplification.

But regardless of your opinion of the Cavaliers, this was a game Duke shouldn’t lose, especially at home. The same could be said of the Blue Devils’ loss to Miami (if you ignore the post-COVID challenges). And since losing to Florida State in Tallahassee, the Seminoles have come crashing back to earth, and are now just 6-6 in the ACC. In the era of the NET, these are all Quadrant 2 and 3 losses. Regardless, they’re losses that one wouldn’t expect to see on the resume of a true National Championship contender.

And yet, each of those losses came by less than one possession. Factor in Duke’s non-conference loss to Ohio State, and the Blue Devils’ four losses have come by a combined nine points. According to the beloved KenPom rankings, Duke’s “luck” factor is 282nd out of 358 Division 1 teams, the worst amongst teams in the Top 15 of that ranking system. How would we be feeling this morning if Duke had pulled out one or two of those other three losses with one more good bounce, and the Blue Devils were a 2 or 3 loss team following a letdown loss?

Viewed through that lens, one may conclude that Duke is the same team this morning they were 24 hours ago: one with an incredibly high ceiling, as evidenced by the North Carolina victory, but also one whose very young core can fall victim to trap games and struggle in clutch situations. Viewed alternatively through the lens of the low-quality of these losses, one could also reasonably conclude that this team’s championship aspirations are misplaced given their inability to defeat inferior opponents. Either position is entirely defendable.

Here, though, history provides some useful context. The 2015 National Championship squad had some black marks on its resume, too: it lost by 12 points at NC State and by 16 points to Miami at home in back-to-back games. Given the down state of the ACC this season, both teams were arguably better than this year’s Virginia, Miami, and Florida State, but they also weren’t high-quality opponents: Miami didn’t make the NCAA Tournament in 2015, while NC State finished 22-14 and squeaked into the tournament before making a run to the Sweet 16.

As another interesting data point, Duke’s 2018 squad that earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and was an unkind rim away from the Final Four also had some head scratching results. They lost by five at a bad Boston College team and by 11 at bubble-bound NC State (side note: thank goodness we avoid playing in Raleigh this year!)

So, this begs the question I posed at the outset of this piece: What says more about a team, a blowout loss to a decent foe, or falling in the final seconds to a mediocre one? There’s no objectively right answer, and context always matters, especially now that this year’s Duke team has demonstrated a pattern of falling in close games to mediocre opponents.

But it’s important to remember that, from a holistic perspective, Duke was largely outplayed in each of the three ACC losses. That was abundantly clear last night, and the Blue Devils were also sluggish throughout against Miami. Meanwhile, Duke trailed for most of the second half against Florida State, by as much as nine points.

So what can we glean about a team that, when clearly outplayed, is still a bad bounce away from a victory? Some might say that’s indicative of a team that has fatal flaws that these mediocre opponents were able to exploit. Others could say that it’s indicative of a group whose superior talent and solid grit makes them resilient to performances that would’ve yielded blowout losses for similar caliber Blue Devil squads (like, say, the 2015 National Champions).

The hot-take dominated sports media landscape drives us to pick one extreme or the other, when the reality is much more nuanced. Duke’s roster has amongst the most raw talent in the country, but raw can become the operative word and leaves the Blue Devils vulnerable to exploitation by experienced opponents that can beat them off the dribble or impose their will physically.

But the fact remains that even in these “floor” performances, opponents are beating Duke by the skin of their teeth. That’s the nuance that has been overshadowed in the quick-take frustration following Blue Devil losses this season. Duke is neither fatally flawed nor unusually unlucky, but an uber-talented team whose highs and lows are exacerbated by their youth and the ongoing challenges of playing during a pandemic. Lower your expectations for this squad if you must, but write them off at your own peril.