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There’s Good News And Bad News In The Early NET Rankings

Duke’s non-conference strength of schedule has taken a hit, but it’s conference slate might make up for it

NCAA Basketball: Hofstra at Duke
Duke Blue Devils guard Jared McCain (0) controls the ball in front of Hofstra Bison guard Tyler Thomas (23) during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. 
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Since the NCAA adopted the NET rankings, they have been somewhat notorious for some early season outliers. This year is no different: as of December 14, BYU is No. 3 in the NET despite being No. 18 in the AP poll, Iowa State is NET No. 7 despite being unranked in the AP Poll, and the Missouri Valley Conference’s Indiana State is No. 13.

Despite these outliers, though, there are some trends emerging that will play a role in where Duke finds itself come Selection Sunday: some positive, and some negative.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: Duke’s non-conference schedule looks much weaker now than it did in the fall. While the home loss to Arizona looks less problematic now that the Wildcats find themselves atop both the NET rankings and AP Poll, Michigan State’s disastrous start has them ranked No. 79 in the NET, moving what was once a surefire Q1 win into Q2. Similarly, Arkansas is down to No. 104 in the NET, putting that road loss in Q2. It’s possible Hofstra and Charlotte squeak into the NET Top 75 come seasons end for some bonus Q2 victories, but the struggles of the Spartans and Razorbacks make next week’s tilt against Baylor potentially Duke’s only chance at a Q1 non-conference win (although it would be a fantastic one, with Baylor sitting at No. 5 in the NET).

That doesn’t bode well for Duke’s tournament seeding, but there’s some hope in a better-than-expected ACC. Right now, both Clemson and Virginia are in the NET Top 20, giving Duke two potential Q1 opportunities in home contests (the lack of a road contest against both these top ACC teams may be a boon for the Blue Devils’ regular season title hopes, if not their tournament seeding). North Carolina, meanwhile, is just outside the NET Top 30, potentially providing another home Q1 opportunity.

Meanwhile, five conference road tests would currently sit in Q1: at North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Miami, NC State, and Virginia Tech. A contest at Wake Forest also has a chance to squeak into Q1, with the Demon Deacons sitting just 11 spots outside the NET Top 75.

The comparison to last season’s ACC isn’t particularly jarring at first glance: at the end of the 2022-23 season, Duke had only seven regular season conference games were in Q1, and only one of those (against Miami) was at home. As conference play begins this year, though, it’s likely that ACC teams playing (and beating) each other will cause some equilibration in the rankings, increasing the likelihood of additional Q1 opportunities arising (home contests versus North Carolina and Pittsburgh and the road contest against Wake Forest are the most likely targets). But perhaps more importantly, the top of the conference looks much stronger than a year ago, thanks in part to Clemson (No. 11) and Virginia (No. 20) performing well in their non-conference slates. That not only gives the Blue Devils opportunities for marquee wins in the conference, and at home, but also could vastly increase the impact of its eventual ACC Tournament performance.

Duke’s historically slow start has had a significant impact on its NCAA Tournament resume. But if the Blue Devils can build off of their recent performances with a win against Baylor in Madison Square Garden next week, the conference schedule could provide some nice complementary opportunities to that top-of-line victory.