Duke is 4-3 in conference play, including 1-3 on the road. Blue Devil fans, unaccustomed to finding themselves in the middle-tier of the conference at any point of the year, are understandably concerned about whether this year’s team will meet the lofty expectations foisted on first year head coach Jon Scheyer. Less understandable are the vocal minority suddenly worried that Duke will struggle to make the NCAA tsournament.
Simply put, the objective metrics put those worries aside. Even after a loss at Clemson, Duke remains ranked #27 in the NCAA’s NET rankings. None of the Blue Devils’ five losses are considered remotely bad, all currently falling in what the Selection Committee deems “Quadrant 1 (Q1)”, the most difficult games. Meanwhile, Duke has won three games in that top quadrant, including marquee victories against two NET Top 25 teams (home against #21 Ohio State and on a neutral court against #17 Xavier). Only 11 teams have more than three wins in Q1.
The sky is nowhere close to falling, at least not yet. But raw numbers rarely assuage visceral, emotional reactions. For that, a history lesson may be order.
The year was 2016. Duke was coming off a National Championship (in fact, their most recent run to the Final Four), and had lost four starters from that team. After Amile Jefferson was lost for the season, the Blue Devils had only two major contributors from the previous season: junior Matt Jones and sophomore Grayson Allen (who, lest we forget, didn’t play a major role in 2015 until season’s end). Marshall Plumlee, who had previously been a depth piece, was thrust into starting every game at center.
The careful reader may start to see some similarities with this year’s squad.
The season didn’t start well for the 2015-2016 squad. A weaker than usual non-conference slate left them without a win against a ranked opponent, alongside a disappointing loss to an unranked Utah squad in Madison Square Garden. The team started 3-0 in the ACC against the bottom of the conference. Then, it seemed, the wheels came off.
In one of the worst stretches in recent memory, Duke lost three in a row and 3 of 4, including back-to-back home losses to unranked opponents. If the sky was ever falling, it was then.
Blue Devil fans may have forgotten those details because of what happened next. Duke pulled off three straight wins against ranked foes, including Grayson Allen’s famous buzzer-beater against Virginia and an upset in Chapel Hill against a Top 5 UNC team. The team faltered down the stretch, being too reliant on a young Allen and freshman Brandon Ingram for offensive production. But the season ended in respectable fashion: a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament and a trip to the Sweet 16.
Why this stroll down memory lane? Because the teams’ bear more than a passing similarity: an exodus of talent following a Final Four run, a returnee having to adjust to a bigger role (Allen in 2016, Jeremy Roach this year), and a heavy reliance on freshmen (Ingram and, to a lesser extent, Luke Kennard in 2016; Kyle Filipowski et. al. this season). Given that, the fact that the 2022-2023 Duke team is in objectively better shape midway through January than the 2015-16 squad should hopefully calm some frayed nerves.
And, through a more optimistic lens, there may even be a higher ceiling for this team. Roach has been at less than 100% for at least a month and missed the loss against Clemson entirely. Duke’s top two freshman, Dariq Whitehead and Dereck Lively, have yet to show the full skillset that earned them their lofty rankings. Scheyer is still learning the ins and outs of being a head coach.
Is there reason to be worried about the Blue Devils? Of course. But, as in most things, maintaining a sense of proportionality is key. Worry about whether this team can secure a Top 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and contend down the stretch in the ACC is warranted. Worry that Duke won’t make the NCAA Tournament at all, which would put this squad amongst the most disappointing in the past half-century, is at best premature and at worst hysterical.
If you find yourself in the latter camp, ask yourself how you felt after Duke’s three game losing streak in 2016. Were you worried about making the tournament, or did you simply adjust your expectations for that young squad? Then, compare this year’s team to the 2016 squad, and take a deep breath. I promise you’ll feel better.