The last time there was an NCAA Tournament without the Duke Blue Devils, well, none of the current Blue Devils had been born.
The season was 1994-95, and Duke was coming off its seventh Final Four appearance in nine years. There still was some talent — center Cherokee Parks, guard Jeff Capel, freshman Trajan Langdon — but after a 9-3 start, coach Mike Krzyzewski became too ill to continue the season and the team dissolved without him on the bench. The Blue Devils went 2-14 in the ACC and ended the year 13-18.
Krzyzewski returned fully healthy the following season, and there hasn’t been a March Madness without him since. He’s added three NCAA titles and five more Final Four appearances.
This year’s young Blue Devils, though, have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic that eliminated exhibition games, that limited the opportunity to play confidence-building non-conference games and that led, at one point, for Krzyzewski to suggest that the season be postponed into the springtime.
They have struggled to an 11-10 overall record, but they also have been good enough on just enough occasions to remain alive in the pursuit of an NCAA berth.
Can Duke make the NCAA Tournament?
One could take the optimistic perspective and cite the fact that the Blue Devils had to rally even to be considered for an at-large berth. They owned a 7-8 record after losing at home Feb. 9 to Notre Dame. March Madness was much farther than a month away for Duke then.
The Devils then rallied with four consecutive victories, including wins over ACC title contender Virginia and Syracuse, another team fighting to climb off the bubble and onto the NCAA bracket.
The schedule has bitten them since. They played effectively against both Louisville and Georgia Tech, but those teams also have March ambitions, as well. Consecutive losses in those games have placed Duke in the position where the traditional season-ending game against North Carolina, on the road at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, is nothing short of a must-win.
If Duke fails to win that game, its only real avenue to an NCAA bid will be to win the ACC Tournament next week in Greensboro.
Duke and the ACC Tournament
The Blue Devils’ advantage in pursuing an automatic bid to the NCAAs is the relative absence of elite teams in this year’s ACC. There are only two league members in the NET top 25: Florida State at 13, Virginia at 21. In the KenPom.com ratings, there are three in the top 30: FSU at No. 9, Virginia at No. 15 and Georgia Tech at 30.
The Devils’ record against those teams is 2-1, although they have not yet faced the league-leading Seminoles.
That may happen soon enough. Even with a victory against North Carolina, it does not appear possible for Duke to get out of the 8-9 matchup in the ACC Tournament that would feed into a quarterfinal game against the regular-season champion. If FSU wins on the road at Notre Dame, the Seminoles clinch the No. 1 ACC Tournament seed. If they lose and Virginia beats Louisville, then it would be the Cavaliers in the top spot.
Duke’s remaining schedule
The greatest rivalry in American sports — North Carolina vs. Duke — is not enjoying one of its typically glamorous seasons. In some ways, though, the stakes are higher than ever.
In the four decades that Krzyzewski has been coach, Duke never has been an NCAA bubble team. Its lowest March Madness seed ever was in 1996, a No. 8 seed. Now, in the game that traditionally ends the regular season for both teams, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils will play at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN.
No doubt the network will make it feel like an occasion.
Duke’s strength of victory
Duke is 2-4 against Quad 1 opponents, with the victories coming against No. 21 Virginia at home and No. 64 N.C. State on the road. The Blue Devils also earned home victories against likely NCAA Tournament entrants Clemson and Georgia Tech.
Duke’s weak spots
Duke lost two games against opponents that are under .500 for the season, No. 88 Notre Dame and No. 165 Miami. There are few teams in the at-large discussion with a defeat against a team rated as low as the Hurricanes.
Duke also lost on the road to a .500 Pitt team that is rated 89th in the NET.
Duke’s KenPom, RPI, SOS and quadrants
— KenPom: Duke is No. 38 in the latest KenPom rankings.
— RPI: Duke ranks No. 124 in the latest RPI standings.
— Strength of schedule: Duke is No. 48 in the latest SOS rankings and No. 74 in strength of record.
— Quadrants: Duke is 2-4 in Quadrant 1 games, 6-8 against Quads 1 and 2 combined. The Devils have two losses in Quad 3.
How Duke makes March Madness
It starts with a road win against North Carolina, which would represent the Devils’ third Quad 1 win of the season. The first ACC Tournament game would likely then be against the Tar Heels again or Syracuse, and either offers the opportunity for another quality win.
However, it’s hard to imagine the Blue Devils then making it off the bubble without at least winning a quarterfinal matchup against either Florida State or Virginia. If they were able to win that, there would be no reason to believe they were incapable of then winning twice more and taking the subjective discussion away from the selection committee.
But three consecutive wins — Carolina, Carolina or Syracuse and likely Florida State — followed by an ACC semifinal loss would leave Duke at 14-11 with probably a 4-5 mark against Quad 1.
You think they’re leaving out Coach K if he hits those numbers?
Don’t bet the house on it.