Duke fans have plenty of reason to be frustrated through 20 games: be it due to youth, road struggles, or bad injury luck, a Blue Devil team expected to contend for the ACC Championship finds itself 5-4 in conference play.
That, combined with this young Duke team’s seeming inability to beat quality opponents away from Cameron Indoor, has some segments of the fanbase worried that Jon Scheyer’s first team might find itself on the bubble come Selection Sunday. There’s no guaranteeing that won’t be the case, but the numbers say it would take a significant drop off in the Blue Devils’ performance down the stretch for that to be a legitimate concern.
Let’s consider the resumes of the three teams from power conferences that were among the “Last 4 In” last season: Rutgers, Indiana, and Notre Dame. The former two played in the Big 10, which was one of the nation’s best conferences last year, which helps explain why both squads had 14 losses. The Big 10’s quality helped their Q1 records: Rutgers was 6-6 in Q1 games, and Indiana 4-8. But Rutgers also had 2 Q3 and a Q4 loss to weigh down their resume, while Indiana had their own Q3 loss.
Notre Dame is probably a more apt comparison, coming from the ACC. While the ACC is by no means a juggernaut this year, the consensus is the conference is notably better than the historically down year last season. Even in such a year, Notre Dame made the tournament with 11 losses, a 2-8 Q1 record, and a Q3 loss weighing down their resume.
The raw NET rankings also tell a story. Notre Dame was #53 in the NET, and Indiana #38. Rutgers was an outlier with a #77 NET ranking, but were buoyed by their stellar Q1 record. Look a bit closer at the NET rankings, and you’ll find that Oklahoma was the highest ranked team to miss the tournament at #40.
Taken together, that tells us that Duke has a lot of leeway before finding itself on the bubble. If the season ended today, Duke’s three Q1 wins would be right between Notre Dame’s 2 and Indiana’s 4 last season. Duke’s victory over Xavier on a neutral site would be a non-conference result neither Indiana or Rutgers could match (neither team had a Q1 non-conference win; Notre Dame, meanwhile, made the tournament in part because of non-conference Q1 wins over Kentucky and Alabama). And Duke will have multiple Q1 opportunities remaining before the season ends, including possible chances at home against UNC and NC State (and the home victory over Miami also could squeeze into Q1).
Meanwhile, Duke appears very unlikely to have a “bad” Q3 or Q4 loss on its resume. Just three games are projected in those quadrants the rest of the way: home contests against Notre Dame and Louisville, and Saturday’s road contest against Georgia Tech. That would be a major differentiator from not only these past bubble teams, but most bubble teams this season.
Then there is, of course, the NET ranking. While nebulous, the NET ranking approximates a range of analytical rankings and is used as a rough benchmark by the committee. Duke is currently #32 in the NET, with the loss to Virginia Tech on Monday only costing the Blue Devils three spots in the rankings. It would take an anomalous result for Duke’s ranking to fall past #40, where bubble teams have typically lived.
Skeptics might say that this Duke team, especially following Dariq Whitehead’s serious looking injury on Monday, may be vulnerable to some unexpected losses down the stretch. So let’s consider a worst-case scenario. Assume Duke’s road woes continue and the Blue Devils lose their remaining marquee road games: at Miami, North Carolina, and Virginia. That would give Duke 9 losses. Let’s make this an absolute worst case scenario and project Duke’s toughest remaining home game, against North Carolina, as a loss as well. That 10 loss Duke team would still compare extremely well to any of last year’s bubble teams barring an ACC Tournament upset, and the combination of non-conference Q1 wins and a lack of a bad loss would likely differentiate the Blue Devils from this year’s bubble. Duke could likely even afford to fall on the road to Syracuse, a game that Bart Torvik’s projection system gives Duke just a 60% chance of winning, since the game would fall in Q2. It would likely take yet another loss for Duke to be on the wrong side of the bubble, but Duke is at least a 63% favorite in each of those games, with the lowest probabilities coming at home.
We could delve further into the multiverse of potential outcomes, but the story will remain the same: a lot would have to go wrong for Duke to be in that worst of worst case scenarios where they’re on the bubble, let alone on the outside looking in. If you consider Torvik’s projections, the chance that Duke loses each of the games I outlined above (@UNC, @Miami, @Virginia, @Syracuse, UNC) is less than 5%. That’s more than Duke fans are accustomed to, but it would be a major probabilistic outlier.
Views on this Duke team are, perhaps rightly, colored by their 1-4 road record and recent inability to close out winnable games away from Cameron. But those struggles still have left Duke a lot of leeway compared to bubble teams of the past, and it would take an anomalous sequence of bad luck losses for the Blue Devils to waste the buffer they’ve built. Of course that remains in the realm of possibility, but unless Duke falters in a very winnable road contest on Saturday, it should be far from the front of the average fan’s mind as the Blue Devils head towards February.